Domhnall Gleeson, left, and Will Tilston in Goodbye Christopher Robin (Fox Searchlight/David Appleby)

The most notable aspects of this biopic of A.A. Milne are the shots of nature. The camera glides and hangs, slowly revealing the still, foggy forest that surrounds a countryside estate. The soft amber light warms and covers almost every inch of the screen. It’s serene, beautiful, and leaves one thinking we might get a Terrance Malick–style meditation of creativity, childhood, and nature. But the opening shot promises more than the film ultimately delivers.

Goodbye Christopher Robin follows Alan Milne, the author of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), and his family, centering mostly on the relationship between Alan (Domhnall Gleeson) and his son Christopher (Will Tilston and then later Alex Lawther). The film starts with Alan unable to write, sometimes struck by flashbacks to his time in the Battle of the Somme during World War I, in which more than one million men were wounded or killed. He falls in love with Daphne, and they have a child and move to the countryside in Sussex, where he decides to write an antiwar book. Everyone laughs in his face, and then Christopher (called Billy Moon by his nanny and parents) asks Alan to write a book for him. Alan follows Christopher, with his stuffed animals,  around the woods, and thus Winnie-the-Pooh is born.

The core of this movie contains a good idea: to explore how the war affected the shell-shocked creator of the beloved children’s tales and how the stories brought a kind of hope and happiness to its readers. It also captures the toll fame took on the “real” Christopher Robin. The scenes the film gets right are the moments between Alan and the young Christopher. They aren’t overly sentimental, and you see glimmers of Gleeson’s range. It’s a refreshing break from the droll monotone of his otherwise stuffy characterization of Alan. It’s also worth pointing out that Kelly Macdonald’s performance as Olive, the nanny—measured, deliberate, and soulful, even if restrained by the script and its lack of focus—breathes a kind of calm air into the drama.

However, the script mires itself in saccharine sentimentality. It’s like cotton candy that has been turned into a film: all fluff and sugar. The story line doesn’t build, rise, or fall. It’s muddled and comes off like a loose collection of vignettes, fragmented and unfocused. The film pulls toward difficult questions and concepts about war, politics, family, memory, happiness in the time of war, love, and imagination. That’s a lot to jam into a 100-minute movie. So instead honing the narrative around one or two of these questions, the screenplay offers a pale imitation of answers and a string of vacuous clichés, served in over-the-top British accents.

Take, for instance, Daphne (Margo Robbie), who constantly insists she hated having a son because she didn’t want to wait around hoping he didn’t die in a silly war. Robbie’s character would have been passable, if not slightly clichéd, the first time she says this. Or perhaps the several times Alan says he “fought in the war to end all wars.”

The biopic repeats the same dialogue over and over, with a somewhat poor understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Alan has constant flashbacks, triggered by the sound of balloons popping, a trope we’ve seen thousands of times before.) Goodbye Christopher Robin is a patchwork of clichés that leaves a viewer wondering, what exactly is there to gain from the origin story of Winnie-the-Pooh? The answer: not much.

Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan
Released by Fox Searchlight
UK. 89 min. Rated PG
With Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Alex Lawther, and Will Tilston