The story of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh does not begin in the Hundred Acre Woods with a bear of very little brain living under the name of Sanders, but in the French trenches of World War I. Here, there are no Poohsticks, no blue balloons, no honey trees with bees buzzing about, just maggot-ridden corpses, flies, carnage, and death.
In the middle of this carnage survives Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), or as his family and friends call him: Blue. Like most British soldiers, Milne returns from The War To End All Wars — nicknames are important here — shaken, disgusted, and terrified that this global tragedy may once again rear its ugly head.
Milne returns to civilian life and picks up where he left off, as a successful East End playwright. But sudden noises and unexpected lighting trigger posttraumatic stress. Milne’s solution: solace at a quiet country cottage where he can write something that will persuade the world to ban war altogether.
A life in the country doesn’t exactly sit well with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), but she is willing to try anything to restore her husband’s once gregarious self, and the Milnes — with son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), and his nurse, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), in tow — move to a cottage in Sussex so bucolic and enchanting that any writer living there would have written a sentimental tale whether they wanted to or not.
Days pass; Milne writes little and Daphne grows restless. She unexpectedly leaves for town while Olive is away caring for her sick mother. For the first time in both their lives, Father and Son find themselves on their own. It doesn’t go well off the bat but once Milne betrays a sense of humor to his son they do more than fall in sync, they fall into story.
Directed by Simon Curtis with vim, vigor, and bittersweet understanding, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the relatively unknown story — at least on this side of the pond — of how a father, a son, and a stuffed bear named Edward became the iconic tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Though Gleeson plays Milne as a glowering stiff-upper-lip Brit, Curtis does not restrain the film in the same manner; employing close-ups generously and using a rambunctious editing style that prances around the room like an energetic child. Partly to visualize Milne’s fractured sense of self post-combat, and partly to keep the image lively.
Though Milne is the main character through whose eyes we see the story, Curtis, working with writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, gives equal weight to Christopher Robin — or Billy Moon, as he preferred to call himself — Olive, and Daphne. Along for the ride is illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) whose drawings of Pooh and company are as iconic as Milne’s words.
Curtis’s doesn’t make too much of those iconic images and phrases, separating Goodbye Christopher Robin from the usual ham-fisted, dry-as-dust bio-pic. Readers familiar with Milne’s stories and poems will find bits and pieces of them in the family’s everyday vernacular. The same goes for Shepard’s drawings, which Curtis films as if they were glances snatched from the heavens and immortalized on the page.
The beauty of a story is its ability to immortalize a moment as fleeting as a Poohstick floating down a babbling brook. This is twice as true for a film, which stimulates emotion through sound and image. For Goodbye Christopher Robin, that moment comes when Milne and Billy Moon wander off into the woods to create the tales of Pooh. Sure, it’s manipulative, as sweet as it is constructed, but it reminds us that even though this will end, that Christopher Robin will grow up and say goodbye to the Hundred Acre Wood, somewhere “in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”