Children and adults alike are thoroughly familiar with what makes up Winnie the Pooh. It’s right there in the lyrics to that quaint Disney theme: “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff.”
By contrast, the story behind British literary icon A.A. Milne’s creation of the beloved character nearly a century ago is anything but fluff. The weighty particulars are laid out in “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” a thematically wide-ranging biopic in which fame, war, and period mores have a profound impact on Milne and his family, especially his son.
“This was a script that I fell in love with, because it’s a surprising version of Milne’s story,” director Simon Curtis says during a visit to Boston to promote the film, which opens on Friday. “It’s about Winnie the Pooh, obviously, but it’s also about so much more.”
Curtis has experience with unusual period perspectives, including the World War II reparation account “Woman in Gold” and the Olivier-meets-Monroe flashback “My Week With Marilyn.” Those helping him to take a look back this time include Domhnall Gleeson (“American Made”) as Milne; Margot Robbie (“Suicide Squad”) as the author’s wife, Daphne; and Kelly Macdonald (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the family’s devoted nanny.
At the emotional center of the PG-rated drama is Milne’s son, the real Christopher Robin — or Billy Moon, as his parents called him, charmed by his earliest stabs at pronouncing his surname. As played onscreen by 9-year-old newcomer Will Tilston, he’s a sweet little boy whose resilience is tested from birth. (Alex Lawther of “The Imitation Game” portrays him as an embittered teen and enlistee.)
Christopher’s first youthful taste of adversity is the characteristic disengagement of his parents, who’d always been the picture of Roaring ’20s London urbanity. “For a whole generation of Englishmen, nannies were their first — and some would argue only — great loves,” Curtis notes pensively.
Then there’s the confusion and tumult the boy faces being the child of an afflicted soldier, as Milne struggles with trauma from World War I at a time when “shellshock” was only rudimentarily understood. If it’s difficult to picture the idyll of the Hundred Acre Wood tossed together with tonally dark imagery of the trenches in France, then welcome to the film’s world, and Milne’s.
And then there’s the most unique chapter in the family’s story: Milne and Christopher bond over games of pretend and a father’s promise to write for his son, only to have readers everywhere latch onto the product of that experience. Quite unexpectedly, a tender private dynamic morphs into something for public consumption.
In her authoritative 1990 biography of Milne, Ann Thwaite points to her subject’s child-lit sign-off essay, “The End of a Chapter,” for a glimpse of how the family’s life had spiraled. In the minds of Pooh’s readership, Milne wrote, “the dividing line between the imaginary and the [real] Christopher Robin becomes fainter with each book ... I do not want C.R. Milne ever to wish that his names were Charles Robert.”
“To be fair to the Milnes, it wasn’t like they were signing him up for ‘Big Brother,’” Curtis says. “But child celebrity like this had never happened before. The family couldn’t have predicted the fame of the stories, or the focus on the boy. They went into it unknowingly.”
“It reminded me of working on ‘My Week With Marilyn,’” he adds. “That unwelcome side of fame.”
At the same time, the film also boasts a plethora of sunny moments, scenes rooted in gentle nostalgia and the wonder of childhood. Desperate for peace in more ways than one, Milne retreats with his family from London to an old country house in bucolic East Sussex. There, walks in nearby Ashdown Forest and Billy Moon’s burgeoning collection of stuffed animals serve as the inspiration for Pooh, first in the 1924 children’s verse book “When We Were Very Young,” and later in a pair of story collections. Some healing takes place, too.
As Curtis aptly sums up, “The heart of the film is the father and son playing in the woods together. So we definitely wanted to have that sense of the English idyll, just with more of a story to tell underneath.
“We don’t have the landscape that you have here in America,” he continues, “but there’s something very special about the woods and lovely green fields of England, a magical, epic quality. And they’re still there. The rock that the characters sit on at the end actually has a plaque on it dedicated to A.A. Milne.”
If the movie succeeds in casting a spell, part of this also has to do with, well, casting. Curtis admits that finding his Christopher was a sufficiently close call that he was leaning toward another candidate for much of the process. “The last time I cast a 9-year-old who’d never acted before,” he remembers, “it was Daniel Radcliffe [in a 1999 BBC adaptation of ‘David Copperfield’]. So that gave me a certain confidence. But there’s always this assumption at the studio that, ‘Oh, you’ll find a great boy,’ and I wasn’t so sure.”
Still, he says appreciatively, first-timer Tilston “isn’t an actor who pretends to be playing with toys — he would just play with the toys. At the end, it was clear that Will was our boy.”
The movie’s endearing portrayal of Christopher Robin is enough to make audiences wonder how Milne and his wife approached parenting as they did, to heck with established social conventions. “Someone said to me, ‘It’s a good film about England,’” Curtis says bemusedly, “because in England we create some of the most famous stories, from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling. But we struggle to say ‘I love you’ to our own family.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.