The intense emotion that Goodbye Christopher Robin evokes is hard to capture in words. There is sentimentality within the material, nostalgia for the immensely recognizable Winnie the Pooh and his friends from the 100-acre woods. But Goodbye Christopher Robin is less about the beloved bear and more about the dynamics between parent and child, creator and audience, being real and fiction. It’s the conflict of creation and ownership of art after its made that makes for some of the most fascinating content in the film, even when it’s emotional core remains a bit rocky.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), also called Blue, has come back from World War I and is back to writing. Suffering from PTSD, Alan is renowned for his poetry, but isn’t able to work at full capacity living in the city, much to the chagrin of his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), who loves to be out and about and not in Surrey, with all its empty, but beautiful vastness. For awhile, it seems like Alan is truly hit a writer’s block. He is constantly asked not to be interrupted, yet finding reasons to be distracted anyway. Their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), referred to as Billy, is raised by his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), a kindred spirit whose affection and patience with Billy knows no bounds. It’s when Olive has to go away for a bit that Alan and Billy spend some much needed time together, their walks in the woods and Christopher Robins’ stuffed animals helping to weave together the story of Winnie the Pooh, which touched the lives of millions.
Although the characters from Winnie the Pooh never come to life, their presence is felt throughout the course of the film. It’s intriguing to watch as director Simon Curtis sets it up so the audience is as much part of the origins of the beloved and popular characters as the writer and his muse are; it creates a direct parallel with the characters’ struggles. We’re witness to Winnie the Pooh and friends’ inception, their background, little touches as to where their names come from. It’s usually hard to convey writing and a writer’s thought process onscreen (like Rebel in the Rye failed to do earlier this year). And so it’s a bit of an adventure to watch as everything unfolds and the characters are brought to life, instantly becoming a part of us all over again.
The film explores parent and child dynamics, but only to make a point in the end, even when it’s overshadowed by another plot. Christoper Robin’s parents are distant and reticent to show any kind of emotion, both physically and verbally. It’s most obvious in scenes paralleling their interactions with those between him and Olive. Olive is always hugging Christopher, speaking to him with a tender voice, and explains things to him in a way that he’d understand for a boy his age. On the other hand, Billy’s parents aren’t very hands on and, if it weren’t for a few moments in the film, it’s hard to decide whether they truly loved him in the way we’re perhaps used to seeing. However, it’s easy to see who Billy’s most attached to. At the same time, the film points out that both sets of parental guidance influenced him into adulthood.
Once the children’s books are published, the film takes on a new challenge and almost feels like a new chapter within its own pages. Christopher Robin’s struggle to remain a real person when the world only sees him for his character is difficult to watch and equally as heart wrenching. He tells his father that he wanted him to write a story for him, not about him. And therein lies the conflict: Winnie the Pooh is written for children, but at the same time it’s what caused Christopher Robin to grow up and deal with the fact that a part of his childhood was being shared with millions of children around the world. The dynamics of childhood and ownership are quite interesting in the film and are richer in content than the first act.
While the emotional turmoil and specific character developments are there, it’s often hard to sympathize with Alan and Daphne. They aren’t open or verbally expressive and so it’s through their body language and eyes that we learn how to read them. Domhnall Gleeson is superb as Alan. He practices a tight control over himself and when he’s delighted about something, there’s a certain facial twitch that’s noticeable even in all his stoicism and restraint. Margot Robbie’s Daphne will be disliked because she plays right into the seemingly unloving and uncaring mother. She’s happy to carry on with escapades in the city and be the charming, emotionally unavailable wife. However, it’s the writing’s fault that we don’t get more instances to understand her because she’s also the character we spend the least time with. Robbie has a couple of throwaway lines about her not wanting to lose her son like she thought she’d lose her husband to war; this becomes her driving force in the narrative, though it never comes up again until the very end.
Ultimately, it’s Kelly Macdonald who steals the show and is one of the highlights of the film. Macdonald gives Olive layers of emotion and internal conflict and it plays out so beautifully, even in the moments Olive isn’t allowed to voice her opinion as the nanny. You can see how invested she is and her and Christopher Robin’s relationship is what grounds the narrative and also provides the strongest moments of the film.
However, the film does feel like two separate entities at times. There’s the first half, which primarily functions as setup and the second half, which tackles several issues and sometimes much too quickly. It takes too long to get to the latter half of the film and then Goodbye Christopher Robin rushes to tie everything together in the final moments. Instead, it could have taken the time to focus on Christopher Robin’s final realization. Since we never see it and only hear about it, it doesn’t carry quite the same weight. Despite all of this, the film is elevated by its cast and tugs at the heartstrings. It never allows for its characters to look perfect nor does it paint them as terrible people and it’s the emotional aspects of the film that keep you engaged. While Goodbye Christopher Robin might take its time getting to its finale, it’s the journey that makes for a good film.