“Goodbye Christopher Robin” dramatizes how war-damaged author A.A. Milne, inspired by his young son and his teddy bear, created the Winnie-the-Pooh adventures, whose popularity had the sad effect of turning the boy into an unwilling, unhappy child celebrity.
Filled with storybook references, the film glistens with pop-culture appeal. But its safe, glossy presentation of potentially riveting darker material undermines dramatic impact and emotional credibility.
Director Simon Cutis, whose credits include “My Week With Marilyn,” again tells a story of fame and sadness. Frequent Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan wrote the screenplay.
In the early 1920s, Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is writing sophisticated, witty plays but cannot shake his nightmarish memories of the World War I battlefield.
Seeking peace, he moves from London to rural Sussex with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and their young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), nicknamed Billy Moon.
Neither Milne nor Daphne displays much desire to be an attentive, affectionate parent. That role belongs to Olive (Kelly Macdonald), Billy Moon’s warm-hearted nanny.
When Daphne and Olive are out of town, Milne is forced to look after Billy Moon, a responsibility that initially appears to horrify him.
But as father and son walk in the woods, with Billy Moon’s teddy bear in tow, Milne begins creating stories about a bear called Winnie-the-Pooh. Piglet, Eeyore and other characters, including a boy with Billy Moon’s birth name, Christopher Robin, emerge.
Unexpectedly, the Winnie-the-Pooh collections become sensations. Photographers, reporters and fans avalanche Billy Moon.
At 18 (played by Alex Lawther) Billy Moon resents his parents, feeling they exploited his childhood. In 1941, he joins the army, wishing to be a simple soldier.
Competently directed, capably acted and visually shimmering, the film transpires agreeably and should please Pooh Bear enthusiasts as it reveals details like how Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger got their names.
A few fine dramatic moments exist, as when Milne and illustrator Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), a fellow war veteran, look out at the valley and try not to recall the battlefield it suggests.
But overall, the movie is a slightly above-par attempted trophy contender. Afraid of being audience-unfriendly, it glosses over essential sadder elements, or offsets them lighter material, sometimes, as with the ending, artificially.
It also lacks the sort of soulful central performance that Michelle Williams brought to Simon’s “Marilyn” film. Gleeson’s starchy Milne shares sweet scenes with his storybook-cute kid, but his inner struggle doesn’t resonate.
Robbie tries nobly but can’t make the messily written Daphne, possibly representing frustrations of women in changing times, solidify.
A sentimental score adds to the excess of honey glaze.
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Two and a half stars
Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston
Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Directed by Simon Curtis
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes