I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I want to make them see.
It begins with a letter—the kind that rips heart from chest. World War II is in full swing and the Milnes (Domhnall Gleeson‘s Alan and Margot Robbie‘s Daphne) are biding their time awaiting word from their son Christopher (Alex Lawther). They know what news arrives as soon as they see the mailwoman riding up their driveway, though. They know their son is gone. War claimed another innocent soul, an inevitability Alan experienced first-hand fighting the fight prematurely titled “the war to end all wars” himself two decades earlier. It still hurt, though. It still broke him for reasons we know and more we’re about to learn. Because as director Simon Curtis takes us back to the beginning, we realize Goodbye Christopher Robin is true to its name.
The story tasked to Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan is an origin for Winnie the Pooh as we know him in literature, television, and film, but it’s also a tragic tale of unwanted celebrity and the collateral damage of boundless fame. Both those threads come with inherent sadness too, the former a fluke and the latter its unavoidable cost. They’re separated by one shining moment of pure joy that yearns to say everything was worth the trouble before its fleeting glimmer of hope and love shatters irrevocably. And while you’d assume the scope would surround this classic franchise’s author (Alan Milne), focus is rightfully pointed squarely upon his son (played by Will Tilston at age eight) instead. We watch a boy brimming with life stifled by indulgence.
For those expecting a happy-go-lucky romp like Christopher Robin and his animal friends’ adventures in the 100-Acre Wood, know that Curtis and company don’t deliver one. Save a two-week stint wherein father (Alan aka “Blue”) and son (Christopher aka “Billy Moon”) are alone to truly meet the other for the first time in eight years of upper middle class to aristocratic heights that kept them separated with emissary in-between (Kelly Macdonald‘s nanny Olive aka “Nou”), this true-to-life trajectory is nothing if not depressing. Whether Blue’s PTSD-riddled veteran freezing at the sound of bees, his over-exuberant wife looking to make up for lost time and anguish by attending every soirée available to them, or young Billy Moon anxiously trying to be noticed and loved, hope is a rare commodity.
Promise on the other hand is always available—something that makes the proceedings even worse. We see glimpses of the family the Milnes could have been when Daphne gives voices to all of Billy Moon’s toys (her penchant for stopping short to ensure the boy knew it was make-believe an endearing trait exposing her uncertainty and fear towards responsibility). Blue is always breaking his severe gaze while writing with wry smiles as his own desire to play in the woods and return to the innocence World War I stole proving comparable only to his son’s. And then there’s Nou and her warm heart, sterling instructions, and never-ending reservoir of love to counteract the numerous instances of Mr. and Mrs. Milne’s indifference. From the outside Billy’s childhood was paradise.
But we see the scars. We’re shown the trouble and turmoil as Daphne leaves in a selfish huff, Alan gets lost in flashbacks of war, and Billy’s attachment to Nou deepens due to having no one else. We watch those two weeks of inspiration and imagination with trepidation because we know it can’t last. Sure enough that first Winnie the Pooh book flies off the shelves, followed by the second, third, and so on. Just when Billy Moon received a taste of family normalcy, it’s ripped away by career, status, and expectations. The result leaves the boy lonelier than ever, a feeling exacerbated by this fictional version of him becoming an overnight sensation. How could it not all seem like he was suddenly the one who wasn’t real?
It’s a sobering experience discovering how much pain was at the back of this phenomenon that gave the world such humor and optimism. Curtis and company gives us a glimpse of life during those years between Great Wars: the despair, anxiety, and yearning for a distraction to remind of better days long since gone. This notion that a children’s book could be powerful wasn’t because kids enjoyed it, but instead because adults could escape within it. To watch everything play out is to see a work of art become heroic. The series became an iconic demarcation for a new (albeit short-lived) era of peace where happiness once again reigned. Because the boy at the center was based in reality, however, Billy Moon became the commodity rather than Blue.
So we anticipate Hollywood tropes. We anticipate the happily ever after where Blue finally listens to Olive and opens Daphne’s eyes to what’s happened to their boy. We assume so much because of what Winnie the Pooh means only to realize how far gone things are. I personally wasn’t prepared for how devastating the story becomes—even knowing the tragedy foreshadowed by the opening prologue. There are more than a few truth bombs hurled (obviously from Olive, but most effectively heart-wrenching from Billy too), each hitting its target with extreme force. This is one sob story for which recognition arrives too late. Despite the early chaos, young Billy could still smile. Afterwards, however, the name Christopher Robin became a cloud he couldn’t escape. Praise turned into torture.
Goodbye Christopher Robin does a wonderful job portraying an era of stiff upper lips and cold familial relationships built by social imperatives rather than honesty. It reveals the price of fame and fortune as time, decency, and dignity. The characters may not possess much room to be more than the role they serve within the bigger picture, but the actors play them with enough authenticity and depth to seem like they’re merely hiding vulnerabilities and emotions beneath a tough public shell. So even though it’s easy to despise Daphne, Robbie lets us empathize with her own form of PTSD through endless waiting. And while we want to hold Alan responsible for pimping out his kid’s life, Gleeson gets us thinking he’s simply too trapped and scared to stop.
It’s therefore Macdonald and Tilston who steal the show as the only two truly cognizant of this “charmed” life’s flaws. They display grace despite an ever-growing frustration in their inability to state empirical facts as a result of their stations. Who is a paid employee to critique her employers? Who is a blessed child to complain his excess of material spoils pales in comparison to the love it seems he may never receive? We watch to witness their anger finally spill over. We wait to see them at their breaking point in the hopes their courage to speak up will solve their plight. But while the script’s construction does hide one highly manipulative surprise, it never forgets Winnie the Pooh fans’ joy ultimately resulted from the Milnes’ suffering.
 Will Tilston in the film GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Photo by David Appleby. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
 Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie in the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Photo by David Appleby. © 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures
 Kelly Macdonald and Will Tilston in the film GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN. Photo by David Appleby. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved