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Released in 2017, coming on the heels of the emergence of a ‘United’ Kingdom that had just voted to exit the European Union with the country dividing Brexit, and with the arrival of a fascist-adjacent President in the White House, Paddington 2 should irritate more than it entertains. On paper, the sweetness and niceties of a family friendly film about a blue duffel coat wearing bear trying to instil positivity into his world landing in the midst of a decade of turmoil and global transformation should cause ire and agitation. After all, with so much anger, fear, hate, and injustice, how can Aunt Lucy’s motto, ‘if we’re kind and polite the world will be right’, actually mean anything anymore?
Civility and politeness has worn out its welcome, and the age of rage has started.
But, there’s something overwhelmingly essential about this warm-bear-hug of a film. Sure, the first film was great, with the pseudo-refugee narrative of a bear arriving in Paddington Station and being adopted by a well-to-do family working effectively, but it’s Paul King’s deft sequel that cements this sequel as one of the instant modern classics.
The narrative is overlapping and ever-interweaving: Paddington’s Aunt Lucy is celebrating her 70th birthday soon, and as such, he wants to buy her a pop-up book of London to give her the trip experience that she never had. Money is tight, so he goes about working as a window-washer for neighbours and friends to earn enough to buy the book. But, his plan is hindered by the presence of Hugh Grant’s deliriously delicious Phoenix Buchanan, an ageing actor who desperately wants the spotlight, and money, and intends to use the pop-up books hidden map to track down lost treasure. In grand disguise (yet, not hiding his beautiful blue eyes), Buchanan steals the book from an antiques store, managing to frame our bear hero, who is sent off to prison, kicking off a series of gloriously uplifting sequences.
Paddington 2 is, quite simply, the quintessential example of escapism. Paddington’s positivity is never not endearing, voiced with devout vibrancy and inherent care by Ben Whishaw, with his earnest nature leading him to approach every obstacle with a manner of can-do-ism, causing a world of subtle life-changing events for the peripheral characters. Earning his way as a window-washer brings Paddington in contact with a man who rejects his offer to wash windows, saying he would never pay for such a thing. Paddington says, oh well, I’ll wash them anyway, and by doing so, clears the muck and grime off Colonel Lancaster’s (Ben Miller) windows, bringing an immediate ray of sunshine into his life and tangentially introducing him to the companionship-hungry newsagent Miss Kitts (Jessica Hynes).
Later, as a worried prisoner, Paddington takes the misguided suggestion that telling the gruff prison chef Knuckles McGinty (an equally warm Brendan Gleeson) that his gloopy excuse for porridge is awful as a good idea. Traipsing up to the overbearing, terrifying brute, akin to a hungry Oliver Twist, Paddington manages to accidentally thrust a trusty marmalade sandwich into Knuckles mouth, transforming his world immediately. Right away, the prison is transformed into a grand palace of civility, with each prisoner helping make dessert after dessert to bring a touch of sweetness and colour into the drab world of incarceration.
In the world of Paddington, police brutality, deaths in custody, over-incarceration of people of colour, don’t exist. Sure, diversity is a thing both within the prison walls and in society at large, but the real-world problems that plague us all are almost non-existent. Paddington 2 instead decides to comment on those issues by not mentioning them at all. Tangential characters like Peter Capaldi’s obnoxiously xenophobic Mr Curry represent the worst of society: a person who intends to control and push out those who seek sanctuary in the outwardly safe and idyllic London. As with the first film, Mr Curry is your atypical leave voter, albeit a muted figure for a family-friendly film.
This is not to suggest that the reality of prison life or xenophobia needs to be presented with all its stark brutality in a kids film – the always-on aspect of social media and culture means that kids are thrust into that world from a young age – but rather that it highlights the key aspect of what makes Paddington 2 such an endearing and enduring immediate classic of a film: the importance of retaining kindness, and the power of selflessness.
It’s no surprise then that Paddington’s journey kicks off with the most important lesson of all: if you see someone in need, then you help them out. Aunt Lucy (tenderly voiced by Imelda Staunton) leaps into action when she sees a terrified bear cub floating down a raging river, enlisting her partner, Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), to help retrieve him. The two had just been talking about their upcoming journey to London, and immediately recognise that their life has shifted now they have a cub to raise. This overwhelmingly emotional point – that your life is most wonderfully enriched and powerfully served by living it in support of others – is the most poignant and notable thread throughout the film. It doesn’t take much to recognise the relevance and need for selflessness in our current world. As Aunt Lucy says, ‘I have a feeling that if we look after this cub, he will go far’.
As the thrust of the narrative takes place, with Paddington trying to get a book so his Aunt, a bear who gave him the opportunity of a new life in a distant country, can experience something she’d always dreamt of, we’re presented with the knock-on effects of empathy and selflessness. This fur-covered beacon of positivity leads by example, making us recognise that we’re better people when we consider the lives of others.
And, when that consideration for our fellow citizens is taken away, as happens to Paddington’s neighbours when he’s put in prison, disorder reigns free. Prior to his incarceration, Paddington would remind his fellow townsfolk to eat breakfast, take their housekeys with them, or assist them with their studies, helping out where he can, while they inadvertently help him out along his day. It’s tit-for-tat, and Paddington’s world shows how simple and easy kindness can be to implement in your day to day life.
The original character of Paddington was one that pulled from the notion of Jewish refugee children during World War II, with thousands of children arriving in London during the Kindertransport of the late 1930s. Creator Michael Bond had this to say to The Guardian in relation to where the image of Paddington came from:
They all had a label round their neck with their name and address on, and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions. So Paddington, in a sense, was a refugee, and I do think that there’s no sadder sight than refugees.
Watching Paddington 2 in Australia, under a leadership that involves a caustic anti-refugee regime that denies the hope of a new life in a safe country, it’s hard to not wish that this kind of selflessness and empathy was one that thrived within the governments core mindset. Sure, they voice their desire for care and compassion, but the legislation they implement showcases a cabinet that attacks diversity and unity. In this way, witnessing the imprisonment of Paddington and the way the community springs forth to enlist his freedom is no different than watching a town come together to champion the release and care of the refugee Biloela family in Queensland.
We’re better when we care for each other and those in need, and that earnest level of hope is proven time and time again within Paddington 2. Gleeson’s prisoner Knuckles lives life by the motto of ‘I don’t do nothin’ for no one for nothin’’, an obtuse saying that he initially reneges on when he double-times Paddington during their prison-escape. But, when Paddington is in need himself, he and his fellow escapees (a diverse bunch, with Aaron Neil’s Spoon and Noah Taylor’s Phibs echoing Britain’s relationship with India and Australia) recognise immediately the role that Paddington played in their retribution, and as such, they leap into action to ensure he and his families safety.
While the ideology of hope and selflessness is one that made the American figure Mister Rogers such an enduring icon for children to look up to, he also managed to distil the terrifying spectre of death into something approachable for them digest. That’s a difficult beast for the Paddington films to approach, but that doesn’t mean that King’s adaptation of this iconic character doesn’t tackle the subject of death. Here, the continual threats that Paddington faces (in the first film, it’s the looming Cruella DeVille-esque threat of being taxidermised) are tangible, with the levity of the films being utilised to make the possibility of Paddington dying feel real.
We know that the filmmakers would never be so cruel as to off such a loveable character in a family friendly film, but we are thankful that they trust us, the viewers, to appreciate the reality that tragedy might befall him and his family. We need the possibility of threat to feel real so that the reality of hope feels equally real. Remove the darkness, and the light becomes meaningless.
In this way, Paul King presents a film that is ultimately the most respectful kind of kids film: one that honours and acknowledges the mindset of children. They are growing souls, learning and adjusting to the world at large, and while it’s easy to imagine that they only think in positives and need that positivity reinforced, they also see a complex world that has fragility and tension everywhere. Films like Paddington 2 and Toy Story 3 help kids process the difficult discussions that the adults of the world struggle to explain: namely, the threat of death, and the reality of what comes with dying.
This is a world where the sight of murdered children and slain parents are thrust into our eyes at every point on social media and television. School shootings, terrorism, and the wave of asylum seekers around the world, are all difficult things to process and comprehend. In many ways, children around the world are forced to grow up immediately, and to adjust to a violent, hate filled world in so many ways. A world that is suffering an empathy drought.
While Paddington 2 is not going to cure that problem, it will ideally help reinforce the need for empathy and compassion. To think of others and to sympathise with their daily journey is one that replenishes our souls and nourishes our minds, and makes us better people. Paddington approaches each oncoming challenge with a pure heart, only seeing the best in other people, and as such, treating them in kind.
As a director, Paul King recognises the need for positivity in dark times, pulling from the well of directors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin for moments of positivity and inspiration. Cute nods to Modern Times and The General help reinforce the positivity that those titans of cinema helped conjure. Keaton and Chaplin made films in desperate times, with their works showing a wealth of empathy and consideration for the disadvantaged in the world. Paddington 2 becomes as pure as cinema ever could be, making it an absolute delight: an ode to honesty, compassion, and hopefulness. It reminds what the power of cinema can be as a grand tool of creating empathy.
And given the decade that was, and the decade it lead into, a film like Paddington 2 feels like something to cherish and behold. A guiding light in the dark to help place a worldwide blanket of comfort over us all, all the while placing a hand on our shoulders and saying, if you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.
Director: Paul King
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins
Writers: Paul King, Simon Farnaby, based on the character “Paddington Bear” by Michael Bond, (with additional material by Mark Burton, Jon Croker, Will Smith, Simon Stephenson)
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