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One night at after-work drinks, a developer on my girlfriend’s team announced without any irony that “Paddington 2 is sick.” “It’s like, really political,” he continued approvingly, his East London accent coming on especially strong a few beers in. Indeed, Paddington 2 is both sick and thoroughly political from start to finish. If the first film was “fuck UKIP, the children’s movie,” Paddington 2 maintains an unimpeachable level of craft, reinforces this stance and pushes itself to think and to say yet a little more.

The film begins with Paddington waking up in London and narrating a letter to his Aunt Lucy back home. I’m reminded of the opening monologue of Angels in America, in which a Rabbi conducting a funeral muses on the great wave of resettlement that brought politically displaced and economically disadvantaged Ashkenazim to the great cities of the East Coast:

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.

Perhaps to immigrate is not what it once was, because the nature of our struggles has changed—though “immigration” means many things, and for many contemporary refugees the process is so awful and fraught as to defy any such ameliorating comparison. Old sins have new names, and all that’s “post” is prologue. Yet in a vital way to be an immigrant, to live as an immigrant, is already to have succeeded against great odds. It is to have made a voyage, and to make it again every day in miniature. To feel they journey’s echoes in your bones, even ten years on, when you raise children in a new land. Always. Even when you “belong.”

This opening sequence shows us Paddington’s life as a success, as a blessing, as a source of pride for himself and those who love him. Silly, fallible, mess-making Paddington, who is good in small things, and through this great in goodness. The film makes several nods to the amusing misunderstandings and clumsy mishaps of Michael Bond’s Paddington series. I slightly feel that the way the films merely tip the hat to this aspect of the source material before moving on is due to the late-capitalist cult of productivity and achievement. Even in comic children’s fiction, messing up, not Being Useful in some work-like capacity, feels too cringey, too high stakes. I myself have an awful fear of failure and embarrassment, and so wince through the Amelia Bedelia-ish incidents when reading the books. Yet the films’ redirection of emphasis does serve an important narrative purpose: it enables Paddington escape being a stupid immigrant caricature, allowing him both difference and dignity, both failure and worthiness of love. When Paddington’s whimsical approach to his window-cleaning business succeeds after some false starts, we have our cake and eat it. I ultimately feel the film is performing a good update of the series. The movie’s doing its own thing, minimising one aspect of the books’ formula to focus on its own projects.

According to review-aggregation database Rotten Tomatoes, Paddington 2 is the most positively-received film in the site’s history. I can’t help feeling it’s earned that. The care that went into rethinking the book series for this new format and era also went into constructing the film’s structure. The scenes move from comedy to quite serious dramatic moments, evoking themes as big as those any other film this year dealt with. (I definitely cried in the theatre—just like with the last fucking one.) These transitions are exceedingly well-balanced: you don’t get that Phantom Menace whiplash where all meaning and tension dissolves into instant vanilla pudding. The movie slips between narrative modes as easily as it does tones. The pacing and dialogue are consistently strong to excellent. The comedy itself is a good mixture of wordplay, physical comedy, absurdist and other forms of humour. The comedic registers aren’t age-segregated, either. There’s wordplay that will work for kids (“You’re a famous actor—or you used to be. Now, you do dog food commercials.” / “A man has to eat.” / “What, dog food?”), and there’s physical comedy (the security guard’s so-called “rapid pursuit,” mug of tea in hand) that will work for adults. There’s a swan attack that’s fairly all-ages. You’re never too young to learn that swans are vicious bastards, and you’re never so old that you can risk forgetting the threat they represent.

In the opening monologue Paddington speaks of having made “friends in all sorts of places.” This is a story about community, set in a multi-class and multi-ethnic London with a Notting Hill that could feasibly host both the expensive homes and Carnival it contains in real life. Nothing about this is terribly implausible—indeed, it is poignant. After all, the deeply impoverished housing block Grenfell Tower sat in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which “contains many of the most expensive residential properties in the world.” The cladding that spread last summer's fire, which killed at least seventy-one inhabitants and left hundreds more homeless and displaced, at breathtaking speed was installed to make the building less of an eyesore for the area’s wealthy citizens. Kensington and Chelsea’s motto is “adapted from the opening words of the Latin version of Psalm 133”: “Quam bonum in Unum habitare,” which translates roughly as  “How good it is to dwell in unity”. How good it would be.

Paddington’s habit of building good-will and alliances plays out in a variety of ways, winning over even some who are reluctant to share in his bonhomie. A depressed former colonel drinks alone in his expensive but dingy, ill-kept home until Paddington decides to clean his windows for free, literally letting the light in and finally allowing the colonel to see the lonely news-stand lady, who’s been searching for a partner for some time. Yes, it’s simple—but it’s also a cogently constructed character arc. It isn’t surprising when these people, and others who Paddington’s helped or connected with in smaller ways, come to the aid of the Browns and their stalled car when the family go to rescue Paddington at the end. The film’s earned it, via specific actions and via its unflagging commitment to this ethos of connectivity and cultivated serendipity: to the work of enchanting the world.

It’s great to see the continued presence of characters from the first film, and their growth. (Or lack thereof—even with the job change from the Explorer’s Guild to St Paul’s, the security guard who gives us the great line, “A nun went berserk. It happens” apparently still doesn’t know he’s gay.) What really sells it is that this growth is partial, hard-won. Terrible Peter Capaldi from film one is still a vile, self-important UKipper (“As commander of your community defense force—"), who sneeringly tries to turn the neighbourhood against the Paddington. “We opened our hearts to that bear! We opened our doors—well. You did. Kept mine triple-locked, in accordance with the guidelines!” When the Browns charge to Paddington’s defense, the sniveling, miserly wretch is right there with his air-horn, informing the sleeping street that he has “raised the neighbourhood panic level to ‘wild hysteria!’” This is hardly irrelevant stuff, in the era of terrorism security theatre, and therefore it’s heartening to hear the formerly risk-obsessed Mr. Brown point out that ”as soon as you set eyes on that bear, you made up your mind about him.” We’re shown via his action that this is not the only way to think, to live, to consider one another. Last film Capaldi’s character may have balked at murder even while endorsing the xenophobic logic that led him to that pass, and it seems he still retains the bulk of his old prejudices. But Mr. Brown’s conversion has struck deeply, and stuck.

These films realise characters quickly and well. For instance, we get a crisp idea of everyone involved when the judge’s wife successfully shushes her husband: he is a bit of a bully, but he’s ultimately a man chagrined by a polite, firm command from the terminally reasonable Gertrude. It’s hard not to enjoy the aggressively camp, aging-thespian villain portrayed by Hugh Grant. (I don’t think he’s even gay, just terminally West End.) Grant gets “ooooodles” of fun ham moments and juicy lines. During the final chase sequence, which takes place in and around two locomotives, he asks Paddington where exactly he thinks he’s going. “It’s a train, it comes to an end—like all of us, alas.” I honestly didn’t know Grant was this good? I thought he did awkwardly-English and then “bit of a dick” in a sort of method way, as various expressions of states native to himself. No, he acts, actually.

In part the film establishes its visual tone via Grant and other actors you recognise very well from other things. Joanna Lumley is Hugh Grant’s agent. Richard Ayoade has a brief but amusing turn as a criminal investigator. Simon Farnby/That Guy From Horrible Histories is still a rubbish security guard and still sexually confused. It’s a comforting magnification of the ever-present BBC “there are only 100 actors in Britain, and we’ve got them all here today” effect. [1] To add to this sense of comforting familiarity, Paddington 2 has a Dickensian quality. Hugh Grant’s costumes include Magwitch and Scrooge as well as Poirot and Hamlet; a gruff prisoner reads a paper called “Hard Times”; a warden says the prisoners have been “as good as gold, recently”, and while this phrase enjoyed some usage before Bob Cratchit’s utterance in The Christmas Carol, we can probably ascribe its remarkable ascendance and continued popularity after the 1840s to that particular source. The film also references several other particularly British cultural touchstones. There’s quite a few Shakespeare jokes, for example, including ‘exit bear, pursued by actor’, and a Christmas pantomime ‘he’s behind you’ that’s also quite literal. But strangely these are also particular obsessions of Dickens and his canon (there’s the Grimaldi bio he either edited or ghost-wrote, and his Shakespeare fandom was excessive [2]), so everything gels particularly well.

This isn’t quite a “seasonal” film (though it features flakes of snow), but it’s specifically structured something like a Dickens Christmas book. It shares those core themes of memory, family, reconciliation and redemption—a belief that secular redemption is possible and desirable. The strong interest in prison reform, mixed modes and moods, idea-pickups and the villain eucatastrophe, where someone a protagonist thought was a menace turns out to be their benevolent patron, are also particularly Dickensian textual touches. The Christmas Book is a good, sturdy formula that really bears (groan) adaptation well—after all, it gave us nearly every aspect of It’s A Wonderful Life. This organising conceit frames the film’s serious moments, such as its explorations of gratitude and pride, and Paddington’s near death, very well. You don’t see many projects ambitiously trying for this range of affect in modern film-making, let alone succeeding at evoking it.

Paddington begins the film hunting for the perfect birthday present for Aunt Lucy, one of the bears who adopted and raised him. She always wanted to come to London herself but never got the chance, so when Paddington sees an expensive one-of-a-kind pop-up book in Gruber’s Antiques he unsuccessfully undertakes a job to earn the money before settling into his window cleaning gig. Unfortunately he tells a hard-up resting actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), about this wondrous pop-up book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Phoenix knows that the book, which he thought lost, is a sort of treasure map incorporating famous London landmarks. Hoping to discover the treasure and thus finance his one-man-show, Phoenix steals it. Blame falls on Paddington, who gets sent to jail for the theft. Phoenix collects the clues while Paddington first reforms the prison  and then, hoping to clear his name with the help of convicts he’s befriended, breaks out of it. At last the Browns (who’ve figured out the deal with Phoenix), Paddington, Phoenix himself, and the friendly convicts all meet up in a climactic train-chase sequence.

Mr Brown tells wrongly-accused Paddington that he’ll be fine, so long as he gets a fair-minded judge. Here Paddington doesn’t, specifically because of an earlier comedic mishap, but the film does evoke the ways “a fair-minded judge” is often inaccessible for immigrants and other disenfranchised persons. Without being a hard-hitting story about post-carceral justice, the film also manages not to be fully trite or paternalistic here—to suggest that reform is deeply necessary, to give space to the possibility and urgency of a transformative justice predicated on respect for the people involved. A mishap leads Paddington to being instrumental in the prisoners taking control of the kitchens and making themselves better food, which becomes a source of pride and pleasure for them (as well as, indirectly, their means of immediate escape and eventual successful return to society). Everyone contributes and shares in food: these remembered recipes show they have families, lives outside of the prison system, skills and worth. Friendships form based on this, and the environment around the convicts shifts to reflect their growing sense of community. The prisoner who most took against Paddington initially ends up offering a strawberry panna cotta with a pomegranate glaze and earnestly wishing Paddington well when he escapes. This solidarity, this liberatory dream for others, is at the core of real thinking about prison reform.

It’s not a tract, right? But there is something inherently progressive about films for the young that resist the didactic dichotomy between the state/order and criminals who need to be punished to ensure “our” safety. How hurtful must so many films be for families with incarcerated members? How often do film-makers think about this? It’s not likely that a family member of anyone involved in making a film will be incarcerated (which in and of itself says something about unequal access to the artistic resources of mass media), but in the UK black people are four times more likely than white to spend time in the prison system, often for trumped-up offenses and the lack of a “fair-minded judge”. You don’t have to be 13th to say something real about the prison industrial complex. In fact we need many voices operating on many registers, and this is a welcome one. [3]

At a non-thematic level (or is it?), Paddington 2 retains the clearly-defined, semi-atemporal aesthetic unity of the first film. It’s a world where the Browns aren’t described as rich, yet have a huge house in an expensive neighbourhood ($$$$) and de Gournay-ish wallpapers ($$$). Even the security guard at St Paul’s drinks out of a very recognisable orange Le Creuset mug ($$). The film’s variety of well-defined domestic spaces is a distinct component of its charm, though sometimes I wonder about the extent to which it all functions as upper middle class visual porn. Yet so much film and television-making is? Doctor Who’s Rose Tyler lived in a council estate, but Billie Piper’s costumes were never commensurately cheap. Much has been said about the impossible New York apartments of Friends and more recent sitcoms. Perhaps Paddington 2 is in line with, or even a little milder in this regard than, much film-making. It says something that I can even recognise the brands in play. If they were really modern and expensive I couldn’t begin to, and after all, you can get very good Le Creuset bargains at that outlet mall in Portsmouth, the one opposite the Maritime Museum.

This is, fairly explicitly, a film that believes everyone should have access to a decent, pleasing standard of living: there’s a William Morris edge to its beauty. Perhaps its class-signifying items, costumes, and interiors are only especially noticeable because this is such a well-composed film that the eye is drawn to its choices: as with the prison brightening when the people within it get some of their shine back, the environments of the film generally respond to their inhabitants, and to Paddington in particular, with pathetic fallacy. We rarely get “gritty” London, but when Paddington is particularly downtrodden we see an iconic red phone box—filthy, with smashed-glass. The machinery of the city, the film’s beloved London, from justice to infrastructure to iconography, is in disrepair.

Paul King directed Paddington 2, and co-wrote it with Simon Farnby (Horrible Histories Man). In 2009, the two worked together on Bunny and the Bull, a film I suspect was a vital part of the learning process for Paddington. A lot of people think Bunny and the Bull is closely connected to Mighty Boosh on account of its sharing many cast members with that show. If so, that would explain some of the film’s tonal weaknesses (sorry, I don’t rate Boosh). But for all that it’s a mixed bag, the ambitious Bunny does a lot of formal experimentation you can really see brought to bear (I’M NOT TRYING FOR THESE, OKAY?) in the Paddington films. For example, they give Mrs Brown, an artist, a point of view laced with sketched flashbacks. She can overlay images on the real world and make inferences based on this. It’s like the visualisations of processing in the BBC’s Sherlock, but even slightly competent rather than so abjectly terrible they now circulate the internet as comedy gifs and warnings to mankind against hubris. Paddington 2 also slips in old film clips for comedy effect, and features a few fantasy sequences that are part-drawn. We walk through the pop-up book London. When Paddington is forlorn and homesick in his cell, the jungle of Peru grows up around him. When he and the other prisoners are escaping, the model of the prison’s facade flips open like a doll’s house to reveal their simultaneous action. The clockwork Paddington escapes through is straight out of The Great Mouse Detective—one of the first animated Disney films to use CGI (in fact it does so in the very sequence this one evokes) in the way Paddington now does extensively and effortlessly. Even the there-and-not-there calypso band from the first film is back.

One of the most delightful things about the whole shebang is its resolute commitment to putting guns above the mantle and then firing them all before close of business. It’s so narratively satisfying. One of the trailers unwisely showed Mr Brown doing the splits, which made the film look like the kind of weak tea that relies on dick jokes. Nah. Early on we learn that Mr Brown, passed over for a promotion, has had a midlife crisis and taken to ‘Chakrabatics’, which he absolutely sucks at. In this one moment of crisis, he finally masters a particular move—only to, even more amusingly, have to abandon it in a panic in order to avoid smacking into a signal pole between train lines. This sort of pay-off is everywhere in the film: Mr Brown regains his confidence by regaining his once-fabled skill at the coconut shy; his son regains his by fighting through his teenage angst about being cool and instead reclaiming his nerdy knowledge and love of steam trains at a pivotal moment. Mrs Brown gets to use the swimming skills she’s been practicing for months and have her longed-for adventure. Paddington almost escapes danger via the window-cleaning ladder he used for his business much earlier in the film. The camera shot through a window into Paddington’s room from the intro bookends the movie, reappearing in a final scene. A post-credits scene with Hugh Grant in prison sees him finally mounting his one-man show, a la “The Producers,” in prison. “I guess all I needed,” he begins (then pauses, as I chant “say it, say it—” under my breath), “was a captive audience!” (YES!!) Ah, the pleasing solidity of a beat that lands.

This perfect pace crests gorgeously at the film’s close. Paddington’s friends have clubbed together to actually bring Aunt Lucy for a visit, letting her at last fulfill her dream, enabling Paddington himself to see her again and providing him with the opportunity to show her his continued remembrance of and devotion to her. To show her all he’s done in coming here, and show her who he’s become and how he lives. The line “why look at London in a book?”, like the film as a whole, serves as love-letter of almost painful intensity to the city, which threatens, even with its hyper-artistic, ideational London, to press against the representational possibilities of art, and perhaps to actually strengthen art in asking the perilous question, ‘what can’t it do?’ My girlfriend remarked that all the plotty post-credit comedic snippets are almost necessary in order to cut the intense emotion of this final embrace, this scene of reunification and trans-continental homecoming. It’s a film about immigrant experience that is also about living well, family, and community. And that is sick indeed.

Endnotes

  • [1] If you’re ever holding a British theatre programme, a) give it back, you spent £5 needlessly, and b) you can play a game my partner calls the (play)Bill—spotting all the people who have, at some point, been in the long-running British cop show The Bill. Who is also very good for this, but often it’s a bit part the actor’s not listed here, so this version is only recommended for advanced players.) [return]
  • [2] He once got into a massive dramatic auction-fight with a representative of PT Barnum, who tried to take Shakespeare’s house apart stone by stone and re-assemble it in America as a tourist attraction. He was only foiled at the eleventh-hour by a fundraising committee Dickens headed up. This is example 1/1000 of Dickens being Extra. [return]
  • [3] For anyone following the advanced (play)Bill: I learned more than any person should know about the history of BBC prison drama while trying to figure out why the film’s “Portobello Prison,” shot in the now-closed HMP Shepton Mallet, looks so much like the prison in the Doctor Who serial “Mind of Evil.” The answer is that while Doctor Who tried to shoot that serial in a real prison, they couldn’t get permission. The BBC’s White City Television Centre, however, shot a fair amount of prison drama, so they had a set on hand that looked very like Shepton Mallet specifically. That’s why the gallery in this film looks so like the one outside the Keller Machine Processing Room, and why this prison in general will give you a weird sense of slightly-off deja vu if you’ve seen (too) much period BBC television. I’m sure this recognition of the real via the false made in the image of the real is like, Deleuzian hyper-reality or some theory bro shit I can’t really be fucked with. This is not at all interesting for you, I’m well aware, but it consumed an hour of my life, so you’re going to bloody well hear about it. [return]


Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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