Christopher Robin: Portrait of a character

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Image Credit: Google Cultural Institute/Smithsonian Design Museum

Two years, two films, one character? While 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin and this year’s Christopher Robin both feature the titular character, the portrayals are so different that they may as well be entirely separate. Of course, this is partially explained by the focus of the films themselves, with Goodbye… depicting the upbringing of Christopher Robin Milne, son of the author of Winnie the Pooh, A.A Milne, while Christopher Robin is a fictional tale of the character of Christopher Robin reconnecting with his family via his childhood friends. Beyond these immediate differences, what is it that sets these two interpretations so far apart?

The first difference in interpretation between the two films is the presentation of adulthood. Goodbye Christopher Robin sees a child dragged into adulthood far before his time. The influence of the public starts the unstoppable movement of Robin to adulthood, with odd visits by fans quickly developing into something of an industry regulated by his parents, controlling the access of journalists desperate for an interview, businessmen with teddy bears to promote, children who want to meet their hero. Here, adulthood is both a blessing and a curse, an opportunity to escape from the influence of his parents as he travels away to school, and later the army. But the route is populated by those who still see him as a child, as the most famous child on the planet met with bullies at school on one side and a horde of fans on the other. As an older Robin puts it, his childhood ‘[w]as wonderful. It was growing up that was hard.’

For Christopher Robin, all this messy business about growing up is done by the time we are introduced to its titular character. Arguably, this Robin has the opposite problem to the other, with adulthood having just been accepted, indeed embraced. This now leaves us with a man too consumed with ‘grown-up’ work that he has forgotten how to do anything else in his life, including caring for his family and relaxing in general. In this case, adulthood is as much a trap as the pitfall for the Heffalumps, you don’t see it until you’re inside at which point there’s little you can do about it. It requires the faces from his past, Winnie and all the rest, to provide the metaphorical rope from which he can escape and recover some of his inner child.

On the subject of Winnie the Pooh, he himself is another point of contention between both films. In Goodbye…, he starts off as a friend, brought to life by Christopher’s father to entertain him via stories. Over time, as the schedule builds and the gulf widens between him and his parents, Winnie the Pooh is the instrument of oppression. The bear is everywhere in Christopher Robin’s life, carried like a talisman on the cover of the books his fans carry, his words used as a taunt by bullies in the playground, and even when he comes home, the original bear is waiting, watching as he sleeps. The bear is with him at every waking moment, and only the theatre of war itself is enough to end its tyranny over him.

In Christopher Robin, meanwhile, Winnie the Pooh is, as mentioned, the method through which he is able to reconnect with a world he had lost. The real world, that is, and the people contained within it, specifically his wife Evelyn and daughter Madeline. Pooh is the one that starts the adventure, bringing Robin back to his family and the world of his childhood. There are also hints that the world of hundred acre wood, and its inhabitants, are perhaps a creation of Christopher Robin himself, only given life when he thinks about them. The fact the animals look like toys, that Pooh is introduced only after his daughter shows Christopher an old drawing, and the rest of the animals are only seen once Pooh has reminded him of them, all contribute to this. Robin is something of a neglectful God, the world he created falling into abeyance once he departs for boarding school, and restored upon his return. Indeed, it’s fair to assume the mantle passes to his daughter, ready to lead the animals on more new adventures.

The final distinction is how the films approach reality and fantasy. Goodbye… sees Christopher Robin becoming something of a character in his own life, with people desperate not to see him, and get to know him as a person, but as the version of him his father writes about. Despite being grounded in reality, this Robin is forced to play the part, entertain his fans/tormentors, for the approval of his parents who will only realise too late the impact they are having on him. Indeed, the only person to treat him as a real person, his nanny, is the only person he really cares for. So when she falls in love, he lashes out and causes her to be sent away, further loosening his grip on reality. This Robin is a character adrift, lost in a world he cannot comprehend from the inside.

Christopher Robin is the opposite, with other people being the characters that fill his world, especially the animals. Were it not for the fact that other characters, particularly non-family members, can see them (something that was for me a failing of the film), they could just be in his head, conjoured by the stress of work life. Indeed, the stress seems to be causing the world of the hundred acre wood, normally hidden behind the door in a tree, to bleed into our own, allowing its inhabitants out and causing chaos. Are the Heffalumps and Woozles truly stalking the wood, and world beyond, or are they just stand ins for mental health issues like depression? When a Heffalump is described as a creature sucking happiness out of the world, it’s hard not to read it as a proxy like Churchill’s ‘black dog’. As he learns to reconnect, the animals retreat to the wood, and reality returns. Here, reality is a permeable thing, something to be interpreted and redefined rather than the rigid straitjacket of the other film.

Who exactly is Christopher Robin? That is the question that both films are trying to answer. They both go about answering it in different ways, leading to a divergence between the characters. If, as mentioned, the animals of Christopher Robin were not visible to others, then the films could present two versions of one man, a child damaged by a forced adulthood later reconciling himself with it. Nevertheless, both films are able to present a compelling study of the pressures of life, whether they be those of adulthood or celebrity, and the impacts that can result. As is right, we’ll leave the last words to the real Christopher Robin (Milne). On his relationship with Winnie the Pooh, he said “it’s been something of a love-hate relationship down the years, but it’s all right now.”