There was no such thing as a “Pooh” until A.A. Milne made it so, although walking, talking teddy bear Winnie’s companion, Christopher Robin, wasn’t just some character the English novelist invented, but a boy based on Milne’s own son, who grew up to resent how the success of “Winnie-the-Pooh” wrecked his childhood. That’s just one of the behind-the-scenes revelations the predictably handsome, predictably stuffy literary biopic “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has in store for those who adore Milne’s novels — consistently voted among the most popular kidlit creations of all time — but who haven’t necessarily heard how they came to be.
Milne wouldn’t be the first teller of children’s stories to be something of a brute when it came to dealing with the little nippers in person (“Alice” creator Charles Dodgson also comes to mind), although the movie doesn’t feel unreasonably tough in the way it holds Milne accountable for spoiling the one life he had intended to improve by writing the Winnie-the-Pooh books. From the opening shot, as the sun splinters through the green-leafed canopy of a crooked old tree to the trills of Carter Burwell’s honey-sweet score, we know what kind of movie this is — in part because so many biopics about English literary figures (from J.M. Barrie-based “Finding Neverland” to C.S. Lewis-centric “Shadowlands”) have adopted nearly the same aesthetic over the years.
There’s something about the genre that lends itself to such idealized portrayals, in which the light falls in such a way that these characters’ white linens appear to cast glowing halos, beatifying early-20th-century writers on the brink of inspiration. As depicted by “My Week With Marilyn” director Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is no exception: a gloriously lovely, but also largely artificial re-creation of the 100-acre wood where Milne (played as a school-masterly prig by Domhnall Gleeson) hatched Winnie-the-Pooh, paired with a chubby-cheeked child actor (Will Tilston) who looks like he ought to be selling Cream of Wheat.
Roughly the first half of the movie is made up of what we might call “eureka moments,” that unfortunate biopic convention in which screenwriters of limited imagination speculate as to where Great Minds got their Big Ideas. In the case of Winnie-the-Pooh, the characters are so beloved, audiences can surely abide a certain artificiality in the telling, although it’s not terribly enlightening to learn how the characters got their names (Christopher Robin thought “Tigger” sounded better than “Tiger,” while “Winnie” was named after the black bear they visited at the London Zoo), or to witness the moment that Milne and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, distractingly beautiful, disappointingly bland) introduced each of these stuffed animals to their only son.
As it happens, names are a very big deal to the Milnes, each of whom had several: Milne’s friends called him “Blue,” while young Christopher Robin was called “Billy Moon” by the family. This proves a useful device for screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan (who previously penned the TV movie “A Bear Named Winnie”) to distinguish between Christopher Robin, the human being, and the make-believe boy that readers all over the world grew to envy, for as we learn, once the character took off, his parents didn’t hesitate to thrust their son into a whirlwind of photo ops, interviews, endorsement deals and the like, from which he never recovered — and which the film leads us to believe ultimately sent the young man to his death on the front lines of World War II, where he was all too eager to reclaim his anonymity as a private in the British Army.
That’s not a spoiler, mind you, but the opening scene of the film, and also the clear implication of its title, which sets up the wistfully nostalgic tone for all that follows, as Milne recalls how the boy inspired his best work, and how he consistently fell short as a father. (The actual spoiler, limited to this parenthetical, is that the real-life Christopher Robin came home and lived to the ripe old age of 75, though the deliberate blurring of such details for the purposes of shameless emotional manipulation surely qualifies under the age-old aphorism, “All’s fair in love and war.”) But the movie doesn’t demonize Milne outright, and actually proves most winsome during those montages where father and son are forced to spend quality time together, while Christopher Robin’s nanny (Kelly Macdonald) is off tending to her sick mother.
Still, Curtis’ film is realistic about Milne’s shortcomings, especially the fact he didn’t much care for kids. While young Tilston’s performance is limited to smiling and looking cute, Gleeson strives for depth, portraying Milne as a survivor of “the war to end all wars” easily triggered by loud noises and bright lights. A writer for Punch magazine, Milne comes back from his military service determined to speak out against war (eventually, he published “Peace With Honour”), though his legacy was to be a series of children’s books instead — and even then, he found that readers were more interested in Christopher Robin than they were in him.
All of this is reasonably interesting, but not as dramatic as it ought to be, which no doubt explains the stunt involving the young man’s enlistment. By this point, he is played by a fair-featured young actor named Alex Lawther (terrific in a film called “Freak Show,” but rather one-note here). We’re told that Daphne always wanted a girl, and the poor lad’s androgyny must not have helped when it came time to attend boarding school, although the film blames the bullying he endured on his childhood celebrity.
In any case, the film seems fixated on the irony that the boy every kid in Britain wanted to be was quite unhappy in his own skin, which as handled, isn’t just eye-opening, but tear-duct-cleansing as well. Two tips for all who see the film: Brush up on the books (and also Milne’s beloved poem “Vespers”) before going, in order to appreciate all the inside references, and pack your hankies. You’ll need ’em.