SALT LAKE CITY — When director Simon Curtis read the script for “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” he loved how it told the unknown story of how Winnie the Pooh’s stories came into being.
“The heart of the film is the glorious summer that the father and son had playing together, and they’re very lucky to have had that because not everyone has that,” Curtis told the Deseret News. “There’s a theme in the film; it’s, ‘Cherish your family while you have them,’ because as the nanny tells the little boy in the film, you never know what happens next.”
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” tells the backstory of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books and will be shown in Utah theaters starting Oct. 27. Like “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Finding Neverland” in recent years, Curtis’ new film delves into an author’s life and inspiration for a beloved children’s book that later became a popular Disney movie.
As depicted in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” the Winnie the Pooh stories originally became popular after the trauma of World War I, when people felt a need to reconnect with more innocent times.
“I feel right now, we’re in this kind of traumatic period, so I hope the film might have a similar impact,” Curtis said. “I think that’s why the stories are so popular because they do remind you of the power of imagination.”
Backstory films like “Goodbye Christopher Robin” awaken a sense of nostalgia in viewers, reminding them of stories they consider classics. This generates more interest in learning the backstories, said Kate Holmes, a Penn State Harrisburg adjunct instructor who has studied the Disney corporation and fairy tales in her master’s and doctoral work.
“These (films) humanize the authors behind the books, particularly in ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ but they become a sort of historical fiction that (transports) viewers back to a simpler time,” Holmes said.
This reminiscence factor also gives movie watchers the ability to look back as they look forward, realizing these stories are part of an ongoing continuum, said Jim Christian, a Disney fan and professor emeritus of Weber State University, where he was head of the school’s musical theatre department.
“These are the stories with which we grew up and that we pass on to our children,” Christian said. “It reminds us of where we came from, of what we hoped to become. It helps us look at who we are now.”
BYU associate family life professor Sarah Coyne said she thinks the reason these original Disney films feel so classic to viewers is because they were a large part of their childhood.
“Disney classics become synonymous with childhood and the magic of childhood and the good parts of childhood,” Coyne said. “We see Disney movies remain popular with teenagers and emerging adults and adults years later because I think that they sometimes take us back to that magical time of childhood that we all kind of wish we could get back to.”
Exposure to these original stories has a greater impact on viewers at a young age, as the stories become first impressions and new experiences that shape a child’s sense of what the world is and how it works, according to BYU associate English professor Jill Rudy.
“Children also are perceptive and great observers whose patterns of thought are open to more possibilities in the world, so that openness unites with the stories they hear, view and make up themselves,” Rudy said. “Surprisingly, popular culture is a form of education about the world.”
Rudy said she thinks interest in Disney backstory films also signals the human desire to learn more about things and ideas people care about, a trait amplified in fan cultures.
“I believe fan societies are a form of the human desire to belong and be in communities,” Rudy said. “Disney, by retelling powerful and beloved traditional stories and newer literary works, created just such a large community of interest.”
Christian said knowing backstories also appeals to the inherent curiosity in people to go beneath the surface.
“Anytime people can say, ‘Hey, do you want to know a secret?’ our ears perk up,” Christian said. “We like to dig a little deeper.”
Coyne said movie watchers’ desire to know the backstories behind beloved stories made into classic Disney films is also influenced by the parasocial relationships viewers have formed with the characters — one-sided investments of emotional energy, interest and time in personas from the stories.
“If people are developing these parasocial relationships with media characters, it stands to reason that they want to know everything they can about any individual character, and so learning the backstory behind the real story I think just increases connection with that character,” Coyne said.
These parasocial relationships can be detrimental if viewers invest all of their mental energy and time into them because parasocial relationships are a one-way street, Coyne said. But when balanced with plenty of real relationships, parasocial relationships with fictional characters can also give a needed feeling of fidelity when real relationships at times feel negative or unpredictable.1 comment on this story
Christian said watching backstory films gives viewers the chance to understand and appreciate the authors’ personal journeys and where they turned to find hope, find answers and try to make a better world.
“At the heart of every story, there is something that touches the human spirit, whether it’s like the friendships of Winnie the Pooh, whether it’s the possibilities of magic in our lives like ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Mary Poppins,’ or just the relationships between people,” Christian said. “Whether it’s family or friendship, whether it’s community, it’s something that just helps us connect to other people.”