Goodbye Christopher Robin
There’s a certain kind of overproduced classic rock sound that makes me lunge for the car radio dial whenever it rolls around. The 1970s band Boston is an infamous example of this production style, which polishes every sonic texture to a smooth and unnatural sheen. When I hear a Boston song, I think, No actual live group of musicians has ever sounded like this.
The same holds true for certain overproduced films, usually somberly reverent British period dramas, and I have the same reaction: no actual group of living people ever sounded like this—or looked like this or behaved like this.
Such is the dilemma with the U.K. drama Goodbye Christopher Robin, which tells the story behind author A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh books. Overstuffed and terminally squishy, the film takes a very interesting real-life story and ruins it by pouring honey all over everything.
As for that interesting story: in the somber days after World War I, writer A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from the battlefield deeply rattled by what we now know to call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Milne fought in the vicious Battle of Somme, which killed or maimed more than 1 million soldiers.
Back in London, Milne finds himself unable to write and retreats to a manor estate in the English countryside with his aristocratic wife (Margot Robbie). When the missus returns to the posh party scene in London, Milne spends one magical summer alone with his young son, Christopher Robin, played by nine-year-old Will Tilston, cute as several dozen buttons.
These are the film’s most affecting moments, as director Simon Curtis suggests how childhood innocence and bucolic serenity can heal the psychic wounds of war. This reverie would become the Pooh books’ famous Hundred Acre Wood, populated with characters inspired by young Christopher Robin’s menagerie of stuffed toys. It’s fun to see the original versions of Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, and the gang.
Milne’s stories and poems from this period became an enormous sensation in the U.K., and the film’s middle passages show Milne and his wife dragging poor Christopher Robin around England to promote their new commercial endeavor. The only person looking out for the kid is the nanny, played by the always reliable Kelly Macdonald, who nourishes the boy with real love and affection.
This is all good and compelling stuff, and the script’s essential architecture is sound. But director Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) spoils things by draping scene after scene in bald contrivance and blunt sentiment, each one elaborately choreographed, photographed, and telegraphed. Not coincidentally, the performances feel stilted and choked. Gleeson is especially unconvincing in the lead role. And the musical score—my god, the musical score. Bloated with swelling strings, the soundtrack is so sickly sweet that any self-respecting audience member will refuse to engage with it out of basic human dignity. How weird to think that music can actually insult your intelligence, but that’s the case here.
Just as overproduction has killed a lot of good music over the years, the fussy heavy-handedness of Goodbye Christopher Robin screws up a well-crafted script that also serves as a powerful anti-war statement. The film’s core lack of authenticity drags everything down. I guess I took it a little personally, actually. As a kid, I adored Winnie the Pooh. In fact, I have my childhood bear sitting right here on my bookshelf. Good ol’ Pooh. He deserves a better movie than this.