“GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN” — 3 stars — Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Campbell Moore; PG (thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language); in general release
Framed around the strained and complicated relationship between a father and his son, Simon Curtis’ “Goodbye Christopher Robin” shares the story behind the creation of A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie the Pooh books.
Domhnall Gleeson plays Alan Alexander Milne, a London playwright who quickly tires of his lighthearted plays and lavish West End lifestyle after fighting for British forces in World War I. “I want to make them see,” he declares, determined to write something that will truly impact his audiences, if not abolish war altogether.
So Alan relocates to the countryside with his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) and young son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston). The Milnes' new home is a dreamlike getaway, surrounded by beautiful forests, and despite his best intentions, Alan soon finds himself more interested in working on various projects around the house and playing with his son instead of knuckling down in his office to write. This just exacerbates the strain with Daphne, who misses their high-rolling lifestyle back in the city.
Eventually, rather than pen the great anti-war play of his time, Alan instead finds inspiration through his son and his collection of stuffed animals. With a little help from illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), Alan produces Winnie the Pooh, and stumbles into massive unexpected success. And as a side effect, Christopher Robin, who appears in the books alongside the soon-to-be-iconic Pooh, becomes a celebrity in his own right.
The fallout from the books’ success marks a dark turn for “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” as the boy’s publicity schedule eventually becomes so overwhelming that Alan promises to stop writing the books, hoping to free his son from the unwanted fame. But when Christopher Robin (played as a young adult by Alex Lawther) heads off to private school, he finds anything but anonymity, and when World War II comes knocking, Alan despairs to find his son following in his father's own horrifying footsteps.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is well-acted and beautiful to look at — Curtis makes the most of the sunlight pouring through the trees as various characters walk along the forest floor. Gleeson feels strong in the lead role as Alan, and Tilston is adorable as the young Christopher Robin. Robbie works as an interesting foil against Kelly Macdonald, who plays Christopher Robin’s beloved nanny Olive.
But while the story is moving and effective, poignantly bookended by the two wars, “Goodbye Christopher Robin’s” sudden narrative acceleration toward the end of the film leaves the film feeling slightly out of balance.
Even if it’s pitched as the behind-the-scenes tale of a celebrated children’s series, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” works best as a story about a father and a son. The historical context and the hints and references to popular characters like Eeyore and Piglet will be fun for fans of Winnie the Pooh, but Curtis’ film draws its greatest and most moving strength from the relationship between Alan and Christopher Robin, and how that proves even more important than his own time in World War I.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin" is rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language; running time: 107 minutes.