Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight/David Appleby, 2017
This year, and mark the calendar it happened in the fall of 2017, the rest of the world seems to have woken up and realized that teddy bears and their friends have the power to change the world and to heal emotional wounds. For arctophiles and other ursine fanciers, this is not a news flash. We’ve all known it for eternity, but for the average layperson, this is a breaking bear bulletin. We also have to acknowledge that sometimes the building of a myth — even a soft, cuddly mohair one — has bumpy edges and sharp repercussions.
First off, the potency of a charming cub — and why he matters — was elegantly and cinematically put forth in the recently released film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Inspired by the real-life story behind the storied creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, this costumed drama captures why a silly old bear captured the hearts of a nation, and then the entire world.
Set in the years after World War I, the Great War as it was called because of its enormity and repercussions, the movie follows A.A. Milne and his efforts to deal with the trauma he suffered as a World War I service member. The so-called War to End All Wars did not achieve that, and it created bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among many of its returning veterans.
The birth of Pooh, based upon Milne’s son Christopher Robin’s bear Edward, happened in 1925. As the characters in the film observe, the world’s population was in a shared funk after the atrocities of the war. Having a young boy and an imaginary bear companion struck the right chord of whimsy and innocence for the folks who had lived through mustard-gas attacks, trench warfare, and beastly brutality. During the First World War, humans revealed their most inhumane and monstrous sides. Winnie-the-Pooh was a welcoming respite from true-life horrors. Set in the make-believe universe of the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh and his pals are able to swap confidence-building quips and bromides that actually beat with heartfelt sincerity.
The movie, which was released in the USA in mid-October, strives to remind modern-day filmgoers about the impact that Pooh had in soothing a hurting public. Quietly playing at local cinemas, the tale smacks of a long-ago and historical era — a time when a father and son could bond over the writing of a bedtime story. Of course, the publication of the gentle bedtime story launched the Milne family into the stratosphere of worldwide fame. That is the subtext and the modern angle of the screenplay: can a person retain a close connection to a loved family member while simultaneously sharing the same person with the world?
The movie’s governess Olive, as an outsider and therefore the voice of reason, leads the filmgoers through this self-reflection. Is it worth the price of sacrificing privacy in order to become a global sensation? Can a childhood that has been exploited ever be made right in adulthood?
The film has the safety-net warning “inspired by a true story,” which always means the production team had a healthy amount of wiggle room. The importance of the movie is really couched in the terms of legacy and longevity.
A.A. Milne, who had been a screenwriter in the early decade of British filmmaking, had authored some drawing-room comedies, and had tried his hand at detective stories, contemplated what future generations would think of him. “I suppose that every one of us hopes secretly for immortality; to leave, I mean, a name behind him which will live forever in this world, whatever he may be doing, himself, in the next,” Milne penned.
Despite his other forays into adult literature, A.A. Milne was forever regarded as a children’s author. It didn’t matter that his literary creations were capable of Buddha-like wisdom at times. (And Pooh’s profile and rotund belly certainly do resemble certain depictions of the Buddha!) The origins of Winnie-the-Pooh were fraught with familial melodrama, personal recriminations, and injured feelings and emotions.
As the movie highlights the internal struggles within A.A. Milne, and then within Christopher Robin as he matures and grows into a conflicted man, the lone character that endures is Winnie-the-Pooh. Forever residing within his fictional landscape, his wit and wisdom has been frozen in time. Even with his incarnation Americanized and Disneyfied, his goodness has never been questioned.
That is why this movie has most likely had a slow and under-the-radar release. It is not a big musical comedy saluting the heartwarming foibles of the Milne family. It is more akin to a moody, but wonderfully photographed, glimpse into a family that was unhappy due to the war, and should have found happiness while bonding over fables spun around nursery-room toys.
Because the family dwelled in true-life England, the anxieties and the mistakes of parenting intruded upon their well-being. They were not citizens of a happy woodland existence. They became celebrities in a world that was desperate for heroes and redemption.
In today’s world — a time where every other day there seems to be a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, or an allegation of sexual assault against a famous person — the fantasy world of Winnie-the-Pooh is needed now more than ever. His critter cohorts all embody traits that still matter, and the bond between boy and bear still resonates with children, tweens, teens, and adults.
The familial strains and separations that were forged by the success of Winnie-the-Pooh are horrible to consider. But, odd as it may be, the antics of that bear have brought legions of people together. It is a case to consider of life versus art. Rather than life imitating art, or vice versa, the saga of the Milne family and Winnie-the-Pooh orbit on a different plane. Theirs is a story of art eclipsing life. And if indeed all of their filmed travails were true, it makes Winnie-the-Pooh even that more potent .
If his origin and promotion did indeed cause a familial rift, then all of the pearls of wisdom that tumbled into the Hundred Acre Woods are that more precious. According to the film, a family was torn apart because of the worldwide acclaim. At least the comfort and joy that the literary creation has sown should be measured as an undeniable accomplishment. The nearly 100 years of his existence should be measured as a barometer of worthiness. It is a shame that the journalists and publicity machine of the 1920s translated the actual Christopher Robin into a commodity. Now, 90-plus years later, his sacrifice should be honored. His imagination and his bear continue to heal wounds. It is a great feat that came about from the awful Great War.