Pooh Corner musings
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The new biographical drama "Goodbye Christopher Robin," from British director Simon Curtis, takes on the tricky task of grounding a beloved collection of child-friendly nursery stories in the bloody and traumatic dilemmas of a world at war - two wars in fact, the first that inflicts anguish on a master storyteller, and the second that cruelly inflicts pain on his only son.
The film plays across four tumultuous decades of British life when the nation lost its innocence, its empire and a couple of generations of bright young people, either killed, maimed or traumatized by the worst that war can deliver.
We first meet A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) as a struggling playwright who is sent to fight at the front in WWI. Returning home, the still-young Milne finds it hard to shake off what he's witnessed of humankind at its worst. His solution is a retreat to the playful memories of childhood. Gradually Milne, with the help of his young son's nanny (Kelly MacDonald), creates a collection of 20 stories featuring his son Christopher Robin's stuffed bear.
The two volumes, "Winnie the Pooh" and "The House at Pooh Corner," published in the 1920s, became a great morale-builder for a WWI-fatigued Britain, later enjoying a huge pop culture afterlife with the help of the Walt Disney Studio and rock musicians Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina, Josh Pike and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
First a confession: as the son of a British WWI vet, I was introduced to Pooh Bear at an early age. A I write this, my Pooh books lie next to my laptop. I even read myself to sleep last night with my favorite tale, the final chapter of "The House of Pooh Corner," in which Milne writes, "So they went off together. But 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."
So how does it feel to watch a film that must rub one's nose in the very horrible events that the Pooh stories themselves were designed to help one forget? "Goodbye Christopher Robin" grows out of the same emotional soil that has given us not one but two Winston Churchill biopics this awards season. People instinctively reach for things that will heal old wounds. My father gave me Pooh books instead of stories of how he lost his teeth due to Germany's WWI use of mustard gas. I saw the false teeth floating in the glass in the bathroom, but Pooh Bear left a more lasting impression.
Invariably, with so much emotional baggage to deal with, somebody has to take the fall, play the heavy. Remember how Mary Tyler Moore became the cold-hearted mom to Timothy Hutton's emotionally fragile teen son in Robert Redford's "Ordinary People?" Well, in "Goodbye Christopher Robin," director Curtis and his co-writers deflect blame from Domhnall Gleeson's A.A. Milne and instead dump it on the sturdy dramatic shoulders of Margo Robbie ("The Wolf of Wall Street") as Daphne de Selincourt, Milne's bitch of a wife.
Kelly MacDonald, previously seen in that other great nursery story "Finding Neverland," as well as in "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," here sets the right tone as Olive, Christopher Robin's nanny. Since Americans seldom have nannies, the role brings another fairytale dimension to the story.
Finally, much credit goes to the two British lads who play Christopher Robin: Alex Lawther gets the tricky job of doing the character as a young teen heading off to war. B.A.R. readers will fondly remember young Lawther as the pushy little Billy Bloom, the teen who insists on going to his private school's homecoming celebrations as homecoming queen, in the memorable "Freak Show." This leaves the job of doing Christopher Robin at eight to newcomer Will Tilston, who will surely get some award-season attention.
"Goodbye Christopher Robin" is already getting its share of critical brickbats. Pooh Bear belongs to the world, and woe to thee that trades on a precious childhood legend. The Disney folks solved the problem by rendering the Pooh stories in animation. Rock-n-rollers took their own liberties. My favorite memory goes back to 1973, when Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina played their version on my ABC Radio talk show.
"So help me if you can, I've got to get/Back to the house at Pooh Corner by one./You'd be surprised, there's so much to be done./Count all the bees in the hive." - from "House at Pooh Corner," from Loggins and Messina's Sittin' In album.
A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) in director Simon Curtis' "Goodbye Christopher Robin." Photo: Fox Searchlight