Comic book characters have origin stories, so why not a film about the origin of Winnie-the-Pooh? I still have the A.A. Milne books that my parents gave to me when I was 6, my childish scrawl still on the frontispiece in purple crayon, and if they’ve managed to survive within arm’s reach in all that time, then a backstory is all but necessary at this point. Goodbye Christopher Robin both is and isn’t that film. More succinctly, it’s a veddy British-by-way-of-Marvel-Comics creation: innocence lost, “with great power comes great responsibility,” postwar warts and all. You may want to bring a handkerchief, so boldly manipulative the movie ends up being, but for fans of Pooh and the power of art as therapy during times of existential crises, the story is never less than interesting and melodramatically well-done.
It begins in 1918, as a badly rattled (read: PTSD) aspiring author Alan A. Milne (Gleeson) returns from the Western Front with both his humanist idealism and psyche in veritable tatters. His wife Daphne (Robbie) all but berates him for not being able to put the 10 million dead of Europa to rest in his mind, but Milne is determined to pen a book on outlawing the very notion of warfare itself. Alas, the ambitious work never comes to full fruition, but the birth of the couple’s son results, happily for the most part, in an entirely unexpected – to Milne, certainly – avenue of expression. In between shell-shocked meltdowns caused by popping balloons, automobile backfires, and a sudden hive of bees that recalls a ghastly flashback to the blowflies that swarmed the dead in their trenches, Milne embarks on the creation of the Hundred Acre Wood and its floppy inhabitants. Using his ever-smiling, Now We Are Six-year-old son Christopher, nicknamed Billy Moon by his parents and beloved Nanny Olive (Macdonald), as a template and with an illustrative assist from his wartime friend Ernest (Moore), Winnie-the-Pooh soon becomes an international sensation. The unfortunate side-product of the stories’ fame becomes increasingly apparent as the young boy (played for the most part by Tilston) becomes “a show pony” for the press and public alike. The boy’s own personal identity and his overall childhood are thrown into conflict as he is unrealistically but affectionately regarded as “Christopher Robin” by adoring fans the world over. And so it goes.
There’s treacle aplenty running like “a tap of happiness” all through Goodbye Christopher Robin, but it’s bookended and leavened by war and rumors of war. Cinematographer Ben Smithard (Belle) creates a sun-dappled countryside straight out of Currier & Ives by way of Sussex, England, and all three adult leads are top-drawer. If you’re looking for a bucolic backstory to the birth of Winnie-the-Pooh, this may not be the film you’re expecting, but to paraphrase the unironic Daphne Milne, birth is always bloody and rarely painless. In fact, it can kill you.
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