Is there anything on the face of the Earth more innocent and loveable than Winnie the Pooh Bear? The answer is no. No, there is not. Since his first appearance in A.A. Milne’s book of poetry “When We Were Very Young” in 1924, everyone’s favorite silly willy nilly old bear has captivated the imaginations of entire generations. Whether they know him from Milne’s original children’s books or from the lucrative Disney films, Pooh is the very definition of a cultural icon. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” looks to examine the birth of the character, and in many ways, it’s as sweet and ultimately likeable as Pooh Bear himself. The problem is it probably shouldn’t be.
Anyone who knows the story of the relationship of A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin — on whose toys and ideas the stories of the Hundred Acre Woods were based — knows that it is not a classically happy story. The younger Milne resented his father for profiting off his childhood, and for decades, he outright scorned the stories that brought him and his family to international fame. It was only in the time leading up to his father’s death that they reached something approaching reconciliation.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” touches on this tension in its final act in the best scenes it has to offer, but these are hidden inside a story that insists on treating itself otherwise as a cutesy family dramedy. A story about devastating war trauma and deep-seated bitterness between father and son becomes a story about intermittent war flashbacks and a father sort of-kind-of needing to be there for his son more. Not only is this story all-too-common already, but it completely rewrites the most powerful part of the tale: the eventual reunion of the two.
That being said, while the film is nowhere near as good and as powerful as it could have been, there’s still value here. Domhnall Gleeson (“American Made”) — appearing in his fourth film inside two months, with two more due out before year’s end — is genuinely remarkable as A.A. Milne, and he embodies the spirit, wit and demons of the man perfectly. He commands the screen whenever he appears, and “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is infinitely better for his casting. Also terrific is Will Tilston in his acting debut as the titular Robin, who brings surprising emotional weight to difficult scenes with Gleeson that otherwise may not have had that same substance.
It’s a good-looking film, as well. Emmy-Award winning production designer David Roger (“Great Expectations”) brings the world of early-twentieth century England to life in a way that is noticeable but not too flashy; the Milne household in the British countryside is particularly lively in its sets. Ben Smithard (“Viceroy’s House”) does the same with his cinematography. It’s nothing too extravagant, but “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is nonetheless pleasant to look at.
But even with these considerable strengths, I still struggle with whether or not “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is truly a film worthy of its story. There’s an unarguable mishandling of the material here, and the performances, while unanimously solid, can only do so much to make up for that. This is the story of a man who struggled for most of his life with post-traumatic stress. This is the story of his son, whose childhood and relationship with him he packaged and sold, and of their relationship, which was crippled almost beyond repair for decades. While I was smiling and laughing along with the audience for most of the runtime, I couldn’t help but feel that I shouldn’t be.