Biopics are tough. Biopics about beloved children’s book authors are doubly so. Look no further than Finding Neverland or Miss Potter or Dreamchild or Shadowlands or even Saving Mr. Banks for proof that filmmakers tend to fumble with material that requires them to deal with the adult — and often dark — backstories behind beloved stories. Sure, universally adored IP can help get butts in seats, but not everyone wants to understand the gritty truth about characters with whom they have uncomplicated, happy relationships. Given that there is no character that has a less complicated relationship with the public than Winnie-the-Pooh, it’s a happy surprise that the A.A. Milne biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin feels honest. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a very good movie that manages to bring war and sadness to the Thousand-Acre Woods without despoiling it.
Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of how A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) left London for Sussex and the country, and subsequently left the country for a fantasy world, and then for fame. The film deftly handles Milne’s struggle to reintegrate upon returning after World War I and his hopes of writing an important book that forces people to face the horror of warfare, something he ultimately failed to do. Gleeson plays Milne as a man at a loss for what exactly do, not a genius waiting for a moment to strike. It’s effective because the turn, which isn’t exactly a shock, doesn’t feel inevitable.
When Milne realizes that the story he is destined to write has been in front of him the whole time, he scribbles down tales of his son’s stuffed friends, turns his boy into a character, and sells a publisher on what seems like a bizarre idea. The books became an instant sensation but Milne also finds that the success of the books fractures his relationship with Billy, (played by Will Tilston) who is no longer allowed to live the life of the normal, happy boy he once was. Milne’s son is forever enshrined in the public consciousness as a sweet kid and this makes it hard for him to be what he is, an unexceptional child.
In a lesser film, Billy Moon’s frustration with his exploited childhood would illustrate his father’s sacrifice. But Goodbye Christopher Robin makes Billy into a real character. His pain is a critical part of the movie. He is the one who finds trouble at the end of a story spun by a loving father. He is the one constrained. He is the one asked to go by Christopher Robin.
This pain is magnified by phenomenal performances by Gleeson and Tilston, who have a natural chemistry that makes their eventual falling out that much more difficult to watch. The best stretch of the movie is getting to see the duo build a rich, complex universe that revolves around stuffed animals. It’s lovely. It’s kind. It’s Winnie-the-Pooh-esque — and there’s no higher praise than that.
In a particularly emotional scene, a now grown-up Christopher talks to his dad about his bitterness towards the books, while also admitting he understands how much joy they bring to others. As much as they both would like to leave it all behind and go back to playing in the woods, the most they can hope for at that point is to slowly rebuild their fractured relationship.
While Milne’s relationship with his son is the focus of the movie, he is also shown to be barely holding together a strained marriage with his wife Daphne. There is a clear affection between the two, but Robbie plays Daphne as a cruel, withholding wife and mother who inexplicably leaves her husband and son to live it up as a wealthy socialite in London. She has a far less complicated relationship with fame than her husband or child. It is lightly implied that this may be a result of postpartum depression, but the audience is not given enough time with Daphne to confirm the hypothesis one way or another.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is by no means a perfect film. The movie brushes over Billy’s entire teen years, giving us barely any chance to see how the real Christopher Robin was affected by the Winnie the Pooh legacy as he came of age. It also fails to give any real depth to Daphne, who embodies the evils of the adult world and, in particular, commerce. Still, the movie succeeds because it isn’t baldly nostalgic. It’s a movie made for people who genuinely care about A.A. Milne and about Christopher Robin. For better or for worse, that’s a lot of people.