The other night I had the opportunity to screen the new film Goodbye Christopher Robin at the Paris Theater in NYC, along with the director and several stars of the film. The film starts to roll out in theaters nationwide today.
I felt very fortunate to be in the room with the creators of this special film, which was very reminiscent of Saving Mr. Banks, another recent tale about a famous figure in history that brought one of the most important stories into the world. In that case, it was about mogul Walt Disney who brought Mary Poppins to celluloid, making one of the most beloved movies ever made. In the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story is about the creator of Winnie the Pooh, a tale that remains the most beloved children’s book in history, not just in the UK where it originated, but around the world.
Seeing the film at the New York Public Library was a unique and memorable experience. The original Winnie-The-Pooh and friends dolls are on display there. The story goes that in 1921, as a first-birthday present, Christopher Robin Milne received a small stuffed bear, which had been purchased at Harrods in London. Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger soon joined Winnie-the-Pooh as Christopher’s playmates and the inspiration for the children’s classics When We Were Very Young (1924), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Now We Are Six (1927), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), written by his father, A.A. Milne, and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. Brought to the United States in 1947, the toys remained with the American publisher E.P. Dutton until 1987, when they were donated to The New York Public Library. The Library was appropriately decked out for the premiere and it was a sight to behold. The original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals were on display in the main entrance (complete with Eeyore and his nailed-on tail), and desserts shaped like honey pots were so appropriate.
Directed by Simon Curtis and written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughn, Goodbye Christopher Robin stars Domhnall Gleeson as AA Milne, known as Blue to his friends and family, alongside Margot Robbie as his wife, Daphne ,and Will Tilston as their young son, Billy. The film starts in a war zone during World War I, where we witness Milne avoiding heavy artillery fire as he flees through the trenches. While the war haunts him for many years after he returns home, Milne takes to writing poetry and becomes quite anti-war. During a bout with writer’s block, largely due to PTSD, which his wife neglects to understand, he is left alone with his young son, during which time they bond and the story of Winnie the Pooh starts to take formation. The inspiration evolves largely from walks in the woods and the characters the two act out during these walks and at their tea parties. It’s quite exciting to watch the inspiration for Winnie, Tigger, and Eeyore, stuffed animals who are the boy’s best friends in the absence of his mother. Kelly Macdonald plays Billy’s nanny, Olive, beautifully. She is his best friend, but her relationship with his parents can not sustain itself and she leaves him quite early in his life.
When the book is released, it’s an instant smash, but the Milnes inadvertently use Billy to promote the book and his childhood changes dramatically. He’s a star overnight, and when his dad finally takes note during a visit to the London Zoo, where he is forced to take a photo up close with a grizzly bear and women demand his autograph while eating lunch, things change dramatically. He is sent to boarding school where he is bulled daily and spends the bulk of his adolescent years without his parents. Billy ages in the film, and actor Alex Lawther plays him as an adult skillfully, playing out his character’s resentments of a lost childhood. Ultimately, he, too, decides to go off to fight for his country during World War 2, following in his parent’s footsteps. It is not until after that due to unfortunate circumstances that his parents are forced to accept the reality that thrusting him into the limelight as a child was not the best thing for him. The moment of this realization is a tear jerker, as is his reunion with his nanny later in life.
The actors are all excellent in this film. I have loved Gleeson for some time, since seeing and interviewing him in the movie About Time and his performance as Milne is to be commended, particularly during his PTSD scenes. While I did not like Robbie’s character as a mother myself watching her ignore her child and take notice of him, I commend her for her performance as a cold-hearted woman who was not prepared for motherhood. Tilston is rather impressive as the young inspiration for the classic story, and I am still impressed that this was his first role after being found in a drama class in the UK. My hat truly goes off to Macdonald, who I loved as the nanny who tried to give the young Billy back his childhood. She is truly the moral compass and voice of reason in this film.
I recommend this film for moms and dads in particular. It will make them think long and hard about their own parenting skills, and the price your child can pay for any decisions you make while raising them. What makes parents happy doesn’t always make children happy and childhood is such a fleeting, short blip in one’s lives, but a powerful period that has a long-term impact. Billy reminds me largely of childhood film and TV stars who have gone public about how fame stole their childhood, such as classic star Shirley Temple and more recently, Amanda Bynes. It is a dark, emotional story, but one that my teenage daughter would understand and appreciate.
Disclosure: I was invited to the premiere by Fox Searchlight Pictures, but all opinions are my own, as always.