‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ Is A Bittersweet Tale Of Childhood And Enchantment

‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ Is A Bittersweet Tale Of Childhood And Enchantment

The film brings to life a charming children’s classic. But it offers more than kitsch sentimentality: it grapples with the reality of a disenchanting world.
Aphrodite Kishi
By

Many of us grew up with the magical Winnie-the-Pooh stories. He’s one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s literature. We loved the Hundred Acre Wood, and the wonderful, cuddly creatures that inhabited it. A.A. Milne’s stories of a little boy and his honey-loving bear captured childhood in its purest form.

The origins of this children’s classic are now finally brought to life in the new film “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” currently in theaters. The movie offers a glimpse into Milne’s creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, using the toys and experiences of his real-life son, Christopher Robin Milne (whom his parents nicknamed Billy Moon).

The film takes place in England and spans the 1920s and 1940s. After Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) fights in World War I, he returns home with post-traumatic stress, which severely affects his home life and career. Struggling to connect with his newborn son or produce his usual comic plays (“I’ve had enough of making people laugh—I want to make them see!”), Milne decides to move his family to the English countryside. There, he continues to struggle with writer’s block until he begins spending more time with his son (Will Tilston).

The two play in the woods together (their “hundred acre paradise”), and many of Christopher Robin’s toys become sources of literary inspiration for Milne, most notably his son’s stuffed bear. Milne writes “Winnie-the-Pooh,” in which his son is the basis for Christopher Robin, and soon the little book is flying off the shelves.

The Power Of Enchantment

Pooh becomes the most fashionable bear in the world. Christopher Robin becomes a symbol of happiness, and a hope of what childhood could be. Meanwhile, however, the real Christopher Robin no longer plays outside: his days fill with radio and newspaper interviews. He becomes a victim of commercialization, and his idyllic childhood quickly becomes a thing of the past.

This film is about family, the ties that keep them together and the loss and betrayals that can pull them apart. It has much to say about the allure of fame, the healing power of enchantment, and the human need for a sacred place. It’s beautifully made, with both tender and funny moments. But what makes the movie so captivating, and ultimately so powerful, is how it interweaves enchantment with disenchantment.

At the heart of the film is Christopher Robin, fabulously played by the eight-year-old Tilston. With his dimpled cheeks and blonde bowl-cut, Tilston is cute as a button. He makes Christopher Robin at once relatable, funny, and imaginative. He is confused and angry, but kind and thoughtful—a child who above all else desires genuine love and warmth.

It is little Christopher Robin who helps his father recover from post-traumatic stress disorder by reminding him to see the world with a little more whimsy. When a buzzing bee reminds Milne of the parasites in the bloody trenches in France, his son says, “Bees are good aren’t they? They just want to make honey.” This gentle reminder helps his father return from the horrors of his war experience into moments of playfulness and later enchanting stories.

The Perils Of Fame

The film’s main twist, however, is the destructive effect the little books have on the Milne family. Milne and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) hand their child over to Nanny Olive (Kelly MacDonald), who is a constant source of “Mary Poppins” warmth in the movie. But the Milnes are often cold and unpredictable parents, showering their son with affection one moment and neglect the next.

Christopher Robin becomes a celebrity by simply playing with his father; their precious father-and-son playtime becomes “research” for further writing. In one heart-wrenching scene, a birthday call from his father (who is in America) makes Christopher Robin incredibly happy—until a radioman chimes in at the last minute, and a confused Christopher Robin realizes their phone call was live on the radio.

The Milnes tote their son around like a “show pony,” prompting little Christopher Robin to ask his mother, “Are you my manager?” We see the allure of fame and its negative consequences, as Milne monetizes his son’s childhood. There’s a sense of betrayal as the intimacy of that childhood comes apart and is shared with the world. As the years go on, we see a sadness in Christopher Robin, who eventually goes to boarding school and endures years of bullying for his father’s literary success.

Why ‘Winnie The Pooh’ Matters

While Milne’s son loses his childhood, his little books bring hope and comfort to a postwar world. During the Great War, the world suffered a bloodbath like it had never seen before, leaving people with an underlying cynicism and a sense of danger and disorder. Then “Winnie-the-Pooh” came along—offering stories that were cheery and playful—it stuck like a fly in honey.

Just as Milne’s characters were based on real toys, E. H. Shepard’s illustrations in the Pooh books were directly inspired by the open landscape of Ashdown Forest in Sussex, England. Set amidst the pine trees and hundreds of acres of grassland, Milne and his son played together and formed the best moments of their lives. The peaceful woodlands became, as Milne puts it, their “little world.”  In their woodsy home, they lay their roots in a transcendent world, and found spirit and meaning.

The Forest is like a promised land, and though the world bends and breaks overtime, the Forest perseveres. It waits for Christopher Robin and his father to return, and is still there when they do. Just as Milne writes in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” Eventually, Christopher Robin returns to the Forest with his father, and though their lives are changed and broken, all the hope and cherished memories remain.

We All Need Enchantment

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” reminds us that in a frightening and embittered world, people need a dose of enchantment to carry them through. Fairytales often embody goodness and hope and childlike wonder, all of which help us to see enchantment in a disenchanting world.

Children’s books with delicate watercolors are not mere gimmicks meant to produce cozy romanticism. They can help bolster our psychological and spiritual well-being. They can remind us that even when the world antagonizes us, it need not steal our happiness.

The film’s cinematography is beautiful, infused in a yellow-tinted glow with rich hues of amber, blue, and gold. The musical score flows beautifully. Each scene is imbued with the stories we remember from the Hundred Acre Wood: the wooden Pooh Bridge, Roo’s Sandy Pit, the picnic spots and bee trees, the wooded ravine that inspired the North Pole Expedition, and many more.

But “Goodbye Christopher Robin” offers much more than kitsch sentimentality. It is a rare family film that tells a story about the complexities of human life, of bonding and parenthood, pain and betrayal, childhood and growing up. Through it all, the film celebrates a grace and healing that make it possible to love our own little worlds and childhoods—temporary and imperfect though they are.

Aphrodite Kishi is a journalism graduate of Patrick Henry College and a technical editor at The Optimization Firm, a Pittsburgh-based software publisher. She also writes about culture, lifestyle, and religion. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Will Tilston in Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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