I was so suspicious of Paddington. Not because he is an immigrant. Or because of his terrible record of causing property damage. No, because I took one look at the CGI gloss of the Paddington bus-adverts and thought it must be one of those tedious Shrek-sequel affairs. I expected dated-even-as-they-hit-the-cinemas, faux-daring yet actually milquetoast-safe pop-culture references, an anxious need to tell jokes constantly (like a parent trying show they're 'down with the kids'), that said jokes would be of poor quality (same). These movies seem to have an incredible embarrassment about and discomfort with being films for families. “Shouldn't we be somehow gritty? Lethal Weapon for the under-10s, plus fart jokes?” All that unbearably adolescent 90s comics shite.
Paddington was not that film. Paddington was an excellent film, and I cried and repented and loved it.
It was a good adaptation of the books, for a start. Michael Bond's lovely series has its own rhythm of domestic farce that resists conversion to current popular feature-film lengths, stakes and plot structures (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jeeves and Wooster musical had similar problems). However, this element of the series is preserved in a few sequences that also do emotional work within the larger plot. Meanwhile, a trad film plot provides overall structure, and doesn't feel like a big artificial imposition. A happy answer to a problem that's brought down this type of project before!
Thanks in part to the aforementioned farce sequences, this was a family movie that was actually funny. There were jokes and amusing character moments. People laughed — they didn’t just bark hollowly to show they recognized Gangnam Style or the Doge meme, or still remembered that sex and poo were inherently comic.
The movie is both charming and thoroughly political. I'm surprised it was ever made, or made in this form. We're currently very suspicious of charm, and tend to think of it as twee and conservative. But charm can be a subversive and effective means of critique, cutting through, indirect and more direct for it, like a perfect metaphor. SFF fans have good reason to recognize the allegorical effect. Charm’s a way of making an argument that seduces you rather than beats you: it aims to engender your agreement rather than your submission.
People who either don’t read or refuse to take in information about human rights or global economic networks will see this film. But the film does more than curry exposure, concealing a message within itself. The film is the message. It makes the same arguments as the aforementioned nonfiction—it just does so on a different register.
Before I saw the film, I’d assumed the SFFnal quality of this production would come in with the talking bear and the slight magical realism of a world that pretty much straightforwardly accepts his presence. Actually that's probably the least SFFnal thing about the film. The use of the alien other to investigate our own attitudes and responses to difference is some straight-up SFF of ideas shit.
The entire production is well-directed. It clicks together smartly. Paddington’s marked by good casting for major and bit parts alike (an excellent showing for the Horrible Histories cast there!). The film is visually stunning, and made some innovative storytelling choices (the cutaways to the Orphanage and the euphemistic Institution; the dollhouse sequences; the changing trees on the walls of the Brown family home, etc.). It also has neat plotting and good, tight character-building. Paddington is unafraid of sentiment, but it earns this, rather than forcing me to feel things with Murray Gold-esque power cords.
This is a movie that could have sat lumpen in the theatres and collected its Christmas pay-out. But it bothered to be good. It bothered to respect us and the source material, to be a good Paddington film and a good film, and beyond that, to be a kind, necessary film that has something to say to its audience right now.
One of the things that bugs me most about capitalism is how bad it is at being itself—how short its time-horizons are. If capitalism were any good at being itself, more movies would be like this. For pretty much the same money and time it takes to make a clunker, you can make something like this. Paddington will sell collector's edition DVDs for ages; no one's rushing out to buy the desecration that is the Rocky and Bullwinkle film.
Paddington's aunt and uncle were friends with and learned English from an explorer who, unbeknownst to them, was later disgraced for refusing to bring back specimens (i.e. kill the bears), or to even reveal the location of the sentient bears so that someone else could finish the job for him. This sequence is really good at suggesting the connections between imperialism, globalization, and global migration. This is not a movie that doesn't get the thinking that underlies the “Darkest Peru” sobriquet and what it means when we put on a pith helmet to go adventuring in the movies.
Paddington does a great job of highlighting the long, connected nature of immigration and colonialism, and at foregrounding times Britain has needed help and has made sacrifices to help people in need. When, after a natural disaster destroys their home, Paddington's aunt talks to him about sending him overseas, she says that the explorer told her of a terrible war in his land. People had to leave children in train stations with labels, and others took them in and gave them homes. She believes Paddington will be safe in England, because the people there will still know how to treat strangers. Mister Gruber, the old antiques expert, was on Kindertransport. In a visually deft sequence, he explains that a train saved him once, whisking him to safety in England. His heart came more slowly, taking years to arrive—like lost luggage.
Paddington collapses time periods (ambiguously Victorian, mid-century and the present) into a past-inflected indeterminable now. What looks like a nostalgic sloppiness actually worked well to convey the periodicity of the source text. More that that, Paddington presents historical moments the British are invested in and in some cases proud of, like the evacuation of and provision for children during the Blitz and via Kindertransport, and presents them as fundamentally connected to current immigration issues. It is unpretentious and leveling. The use of Calypso is pointed and great. This has always been a nation of immigrants—even before it was a nation. We have needed help at times, and it is our duty and privilege, the most human thing we can do (even if we're bears), to give it in turn. This is the children's movie that could be alternatively titled “Fuck UKIP.’
It's possible I've oversold the film because I loved it too much. As an immigrant who lives in London, and a long-time appreciator of the books, how could I not love it? But I maintain this is a solid film. It makes being a good film look easy—and it makes being good look sometimes easy, sometimes complicated, but always worthwhile.
I told a friend the bulk of this, and she responded as follows:
Friend: You cried over a bear
Erin: I did.
Friend: YOU CRIED OVER A TALKING BEAR
Erin: YES I MOTHERFUCKING DID.
I regret nothing.
Erin Horáková (email@example.com) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.