Like most people, my limited knowledge of Winnie-the-Pooh comes from being force-fed the cartoon as a child. I knew that he enjoyed honey; that he often went gallivanting across the Hundred Acre Woods with Christopher Robin; that Rabbit was clearly misunderstood; and that Tigger is most definitely on something. I had some inkling that the whole thing was based on a true story, and that the real toys were on display at the New York Public Library.
But I truly had no idea that the most universally beloved children's character had literally ruined a little boy's life.
There's been major cinematic interest around Christopher Robin in the past year or so. Disney just released Christopher Robin, a re-imagining of the character as an adult. But Goodbye Christopher Robin, which hit theaters in October 2017, ostensibly tells the true story behind the little boy who so loved Winnie-the-Pooh. It shows how creator A.A. Milne (Domnhall Gleeson), seeking to make sense of life after the trauma of World War I, took his son, Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston) on various adventures in the woods surrounding their Sussex house. Nicknamed "Billy Moon," Christopher Robin is a bright, curious boy with a fantastic imagination, who makes up a whole world for his teddy bear, Winnie. Seeing the potential joy this could bring to others, Milne used his own experiences with Billy Moon and turned it into a pop culture phenomenon. So far, so good.
The bother (get it?) comes when, in light of the book's monumental success, Milne and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie) push Billy Moon to make public appearances in character. He does radio interviews, is forced to dress up like Christopher Robin to greet other children, and generally has his entire existence subsumed by this narrative that had once been just his. He is basically the original child star. And his parents — if you believe the movie, his mother foremost — are his managers. Eventually, Milne — with a little reality check from Nanny Nu (Kelly Macdonald) — realizes that this was all too much for his son, and sends him off to boarding school, where he is mercilessly bullied until he voluntarily joins the army as a private in World War II. He never took a cent from the millions of dollars his story made, and the whole thing eventually led to his estrangement from his family.
It's a story that's still astoundingly relevant. Switch out the 1920s apparel for modern clothing, and this could very well be a biopic about Lindsay Lohan, or Macauley Culkin, or Kendall and Kylie Jenner. Daphne Milne is portrayed as a shrewd socialite, who, after realizing she can't push her husband into the spotlight she craves, takes over molding her son. Sound familiar?
We think of the fame machine as a recent phenomenon, and to a certain extent, it is. There wasn't always social media to keep fans up to date with their favorite celebrity goings on, but the public has always hungered for an inside look into the lives of those they admire. Just look at Zelda and F.Scott Fitzgerald, contemporaries of the Milnes, considered the first tabloid It Couple. Instead of hair gummies and sponcon, there were contests and the chance to take high tea with your favorite star.
Fame is invasive by nature, and 99% of the time, that's fine. Most celebrities are adults who have made a decision to enter a particularly glamorous world where the trade-off is, more often than not, privacy. But in the case of a child star, that choice is obscured by the fact that they are, well, a child. Either they're too young to consciously make it, or they're being pushed into something they don't want to do.
It's easy to blame the parents, and to a certain extent, Goodbye Christopher Robin does just that. In his attempt to bring joy to other, A.A. Milne robbed his son of his. But that's not entirely fair. What I take away from this film is that the public bears almost just as much responsibility. The tricky nature of fame is that we build things up only to tear them down. Think of Jennifer Lawrence, who is alternately adored and reviled, depending on the public mood. Or, Anne Hathway, who was the darling of all until she got too popular, and then had to be put in her place. Christopher Robin's sad adolescence is a consequence of that dichotomy. His bullies may have worshipped him as children, but as teenagers they have to bring him back down to earth.
Our motives may not be malicious — we love something, therefore we want to possess a part of it — but the consequences can be atrocious. If one look at Billy Moon's perfect, cherubic face as his eyes well up with tears doesn't drive the point home, nothing will.
This story has been updated.