Good-bye, Winnie the Pooh

In Photo: Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne and Wil Tilston as a young Christopher Robin in the precious British film Goodbye, Christopher Robin.

A FATHER and his son are walking from the woods to their home. The father has expressed regret for writing a book that destroyed the childhood of his son; the son, now all of 18, tells his father that isn’t so. In the warfront, the son finds out that the story based on him and his toys and the characters surrounding his childhood would give hope and the memories of home to the lonely soldiers in the despair of the warfront. The father is A.A. Milne, the celebrated author of the book Winnie-the-Pooh, and the son is Billy Moon, the Christopher Robin in Milne’s book, the little boy whose soft toys come alive and accompany him in his various adventures as a child with what readers—little boys and girls—call an enviable childhood.

Without spoiling your fun about the film, Goodbye, Christopher Robin does end on a happy note. The irony is that even as there’s a palpable reconciliation between the characters, or a feeling that father and son have reached an understanding, there is also the threat that such happiness would eventually end. All throughout, from start until that ending, there is a pall of gloom and disaster hanging over the characters in Goodbye….

Two wars bookend the story of the creation of Winnie the Pooh.

In 1916 A.A. Milne, like any young man of that generation, joins the First World War. He survives the war but, every now and then, his memories bring him back to the battlefield. He marries Daphne and they have a child. This son grows under the care of a nanny whose presence allows the two parents to be always away. There is no closeness between the parents and the boy.

Coming home from the war doesn’t bring any good to the life of A.A. Milne, it seems. He stops writing. To get over the writer’s block, he decides to move out of London into a less urban setting. In that new location, he finds time to be with his son. They go for walks and he, for the first time, tells stories to the boy. The son, Christopher Robin Milne, turns to be a boy whose imagination is vivid but oddly grounded in reality. The boy suspends disbelief but reminds us he is conscious of that suspension. Even as he talks to his teddy bear, he tells his father that the bear is a toy. When A. A. Milne attempts to create voices for the toy, Christopher Robin tells him it is only his mother who does that and who should do that. Discovering this uncanny maturity in the boy, A.A. Milne finds himself developing a story based on the toys of the boy and about the boy himself. When the boy, now grown up, decides to go to war—the Second World War—he reminds his father there’s never a moment in his childhood that he remembers his father as being concerned about him, or even just looking at him. The father reminds him that he has written a book for him, to which the boy counters by saying the book is written not for him but about him.

Daphne, the mother, leaves the writer-husband when the latter wouldn’t write anything. She comes back after he has resumed writing. This would become the book about Winnie the Pooh.

The book becomes a sensational hit. With its phenomenal success comes the popularity of the writer and, moreover, the persona of the boy who plays with Tigger and Piglet and Winnie the Pooh. The boy is a sensation. This confuses him. He has his teddy bear, his Winnie the Pooh but he now has to contend with copies of his toys. He is Christopher Robin but he is not the Christopher Robin that readers—and fans—know from the book.

For those who follow the comic strips created about Winnie the Pooh and his friends, they readily feel the cool, laid-back, uncomplicated life of the boy and his toys that get animated in the eyes of the boy. The film erases all that: the world of A.A. Milne is about a man who goes to war, comes home shell-shocked and traumatized. He writes a book that he feels should help convince the world about the inanities of war. But then, another war is the reason for the son to reclaim his identity. Christopher Robin thinks he will become Private Milne when he goes to war. In that sordid setting, he would rediscover that his father may not have stopped the war by writing about a boy and his teddy bear but he, according to Christopher Robin, has created a story that brings back thoughts of home and remembrances of happy childhood.

From the very start, Goodbye, Christopher Robin gives us scenes of breathtaking verdure. The same beauty beheld, however, reveals other worlds: a wide meadow reminds A.A. Milne and his friend, Ernest Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, of the battlefield in France; the graceful dirt road is the same road that carries the messenger announcing that Christopher Robin is missing in action.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin once more rediscovers for us the hidden sadness in stories for children.

The actors playing Christopher Robin as a young boy and as a young man have beguiling qualities. The boy smiles and you know things are not alright; the young man forgives and we know the past can never correct the mistakes of the present.

The adult actors in the film, however, have the bitterest characters to play. As the nanny who has to leave, Kelly McDonald is the stuff golden memories are made of. She is this person we can never forget. I’m pleasantly surprised that this elegantly beautiful mother, Daphne, is played by Margot Robbie, the Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. We can never grasp the mother that she is: except for the slight touching, there is never a real hug between her and her son. In the end, when her son thus comes back, her tears are silver regrets and recriminations. As A.A. Milne, Domhnall Gleeson gives a moving performance whose tenderness as a father comes out only when he starts spinning a tale. Gleeson has become a major actor after appearing in films like The Revenant and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

After this film, we can all bid good-bye to Winnie the Pooh, this harmless teddy bear and say hello to a world of enchantment where there are good fairies to save young boys and bad witches that can devour good childhood.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, and directed by Simon Curtis.

****

ONE rainy evening some two years ago, a young man, Arvin Kadiboy Belarmino, came rushing to me to hand in a USB, which he said contains some short films, which include one he made with another filmmaker, Noel Escondo. “For the Manunuri,” he told me. That film was Nakaw and it won the Gawad Urian for Best Short Film that year. The film went on to be shown in Cannes. As of this writing, the film is competing in this year’s Oscar Qualifying Film Festival in the Brussels Short Film Festival to be held in Brussels, Belgium, from April 25 to May 6. But these news are not just the point for my narration. I owe Kadiboy something: Last week in this column, I mentioned the jurors in the recently concluded Yogad Film Festival. Well, I was not able to mention Kadiboy’s name as part of the jury. His participation as juror, in other words, got stolen. This correction will hopefully restore what was lost.

 

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