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It’s strange watching the story of the real Christopher Robin in the age of reality-show families and former child stars gone bad. Both are today so ubiquitous we hardly consider how our consumption of their fame shapes their identities. Such was not the case in Edwardian England when one of the world’s first child stars broke upon the scene.
In Goodbye Christopher Robin, urbane playwright A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returns from World War I physically whole but mentally shattered, unable to produce the kind of witty farces that made him the toast of the West End. Milne takes his fashionable wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), and young son to a country estate where he hopes he’ll be able to work again, or at least stop ducking for cover every time a champagne cork pops.
At first, nothing gets better. But then Daphne flees back to the city, the nanny is called to care for an ailing parent, and Milne and 5-year-old Christopher (Will Tilston) are forced to forage alone as bachelors. Setting his work aside to roam the forest with his son, Milne finally finds inspiration. Soon, Christopher Robin’s adventures with his stuffed toys become beloved by all of England, then the world.
Milne’s stories are all the more entrancing because they spring from the imagination of a real, precocious little boy … whom every newspaper now wants to interview. This quiet, well-acted PG film brings out the conflict of commercialized childhood without demonizing Milne. Of course little Billy Moon, as the family calls him, should be able to treasure his memories with his father privately. But had Milne not shared, we wouldn’t all get to experience the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood.
Despite a lineup of impressive performances, though, we cover so much ground from before Christopher’s birth to his manhood, we never feel fully plunged into the Milnes’ lives. The mannered English packaging is lovely, but like a lot of today’s reality-show families, it often feels more like simulated drama than truth.