Once upon a time we used to tell stories; now we just tell stories about how we used to tell stories. At least, that’s how it feels to watch a consistently milquetoast, comfortably middlebrow bit of true-life fluff like “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which does for Winnie the Pooh what “Finding Neverland” did for Peter Pan (which is to say that it takes a formative and utterly unique work of literature and reverse engineers it into a passable biopic that has no hope of changing the world or anyone in it).
It’s a shame, because A.A. Milne’s personal and professional lives are both fertile dramatic territory, and the film’s script — by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan — makes sure to point out all of the interesting movies that could have been mined from this material as they pass by and fade out of sight. Instead, we’re left with something handsome but safe, a film that tries to bridge the gap between children’s characters and adult concerns without ever anchoring itself to either side.
Like director Simon Curtis’ previous features, “My Week with Marilyn” and “The Woman in Gold,” “Goodbye Christopher Robin” starts with something we love and turns it into something we paid for. Elegant and empty, it begins with a framing device set during World War II, as Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) are tending to their Sussex garden when the mail woman arrives with some grim news: The couple’s son, Christopher Robin, has gone missing from his battalion and is presumed to be dead. Cut to France, 1916, where Milne is trying to survive the War to End All Wars. His body lives, but his spirit is left behind.
PTSD sets in soon thereafter, the affliction represented in all the usual ways (spotlights remind him of flash bangs, popped balloons evoke gunshots, etc.). Daphne, never portrayed as a particularly patient woman, grows tired of her grumpy husband. She tells him that “Life is full of frightful things, the good thing is to find something to be happy about and stick to that.” In other words: “I’ve got a major Zelda Fitzgerald vibe going on, so stop bumming me out all the time.” He doesn’t. They have a son, and that doesn’t work either — Milne carries young Christopher with arms outstretched like he’s a tray of food, and Daphne is so disinterested that she hires a sweet nurse named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to effectively raise the kid on her own. And then, after eight years of futilely trying to write off war altogether, Milne hits on a way to Make Writing Fun Again. They move out to the verdant countryside, where it always feels like a late summer afternoon and the sunlight is just soft enough to justify Carter Burwell’s characteristically lush score.
Will Tilston, the little actor who plays young Christopher, is so cute that you hardly notice how slapdash the movie is about the transformation of his stuffed animals. His hair is cut into a perfect bowl of brown, his dimples are as deep and round as asteroid craters, and the expression on his face is so perfectly quizzical that you have to hate Daphne for wanting nothing to do with him (Robbie deserves credit for leaning into the cruelty of her character, but the script never gives the star enough substance to make her apathy feel like anything more than a posture).
Milne is more present in the boy’s life, but not always for the right reasons. The kid is a muse first, and a son second, and the imaginative stories that his father writes about him become so famous that young Christopher Robin is soon the Harry Potter of his day. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he becomes the Daniel Radcliffe of his day, as he’s made of flesh and blood, a living symbol of a beloved character that he represents.
These bits are uncomfortably effective, as Curtis ratchets in on the rabid nature of celebrity via a series of book signings, press encounters, and fan requests. Despite wasting “Fleabag” mastermind Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a throwaway role as an aggressive reporter, this is the only part of the movie that bothers to actually show us how any of the Milnes feel, as opposed to the script’s preferred option of skipping over crucial periods of time and having one of the characters inform us how things went. “You never came to visit,” Christopher Robin grumps at his father after the child has been at boarding school for long enough to age into another actor (Alex Lawther). The gap is utterly weightless, though it evokes a favorite passage from one of Milne’s stories: “How do you spell ‘love?’ asks Piglet. “You don’t spell it,” says Pooh, “you feel it.” Hmm.
Gleeson, a surprisingly versatile talent who’s always more fascinating when he’s playing less buttoned up characters (so fun in “mother!,” so stiff in “The Force Awakens”), is a bit mummified by Milne’s trauma, but that severity creates an irresistible contrast during the scenes he shares with Tilston. There’s precious little magic in this movie, but all of it can be found in the moments when father and son walk through the sun-dappled eden that stretches out from their house, the inquisitive boy dragging his inanimate bear by one arm. These are the nicest parts of a very nice film, and they make you think to yourself: “Oh, this is just so very nice.” And then, as if cued to confirm your feeling, one of the characters will say something like “this is nice.” And they’re not wrong.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is at its best when it mirrors the enchanted tone of Milne’s stories; it’s useless when it tries to capture decidedly adult matters, such as the rudderless feeling of a country recovering from one war while barreling towards another. Milne supposedly gets so wrapped up in success that he doesn’t see the storm clouds forming overhead, oblivious to the fact that he’s condemning his son to the same horrors that once haunted him. This movie, of course, has precious little time for the tragedy of it all. Milne’s mental recuperation from one war dovetails with Christopher Robin’s enlistment in another, but Curtis glosses over that dynamic so gingerly that his film ultimately seems to imply that PTSD is the only thing protecting us from a new round of pain, that it’s a physiological course-correction away from armed conflict. That’s definitely one idea, but Winnie the Pooh may not be the ideal conduit through which to explore it.
If anything, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” argues that tragedy is a fact of life; Daphne may be irredeemable, but she does have a point. “Writing a book against war is like writing a book against Wednesdays,” she tells her husband, and it’s true: We can’t wish away the worst parts of our world, but our imagination equips us with the most beautiful additive force that money can’t buy. What a shame that this gentle wisp of a movie doesn’t have any.
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” opens in U.S. theaters on October 13.