Last night I saw Paddington, the movie based on the iconic English children’s character who really, really likes marmalade, and I found myself seated behind a young kid. He was maybe seven or eight, and he had a hard time keeping quiet during the movie - he commented a lot and asked questions, and his mom shushed him but it felt sort of natural and right. He hissed “That lady is mean!” at Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist, and everybody around him laughed because when you’re right, you’re right.
Towards the end of the film - and there are mild spoilers for Paddington to follow - our plucky young bear finds himself in a spot of bother. He’s trying to escape Kidman’s clutches by climbing up inside a metal chimney, but a fire is lit in the boiler below him. Just as he gets to the top he loses his grip and tries for the edge of the pipe but misses, and begins tumbling down towards the raging inferno three stories below.
The kid bolted out of his seat, stood straight up and cried in a voice of absolute horror, “NO! He can’t fall!”
Spoiler, again: Paddington doesn't die. And it’s pretty clear to anyone watching that the PG Paddington Bear movie will not end with the title character being consumed by fire. But in that moment it was totally plausible for that kid, he was completely caught up in the story and the character and that danger - however impossible - felt absolutely immediate to him. He had to get to his feet; I imagine he would have jumped up and tried to grab that bear himself if he could.
It was incredible to see the power that the movie had on this boy. He was young enough that the conventions of storytelling hadn’t really been internalized for him yet. It wasn’t obvious to this kid that this was a children’s movie and thus all the characters would end up not only okay but much happier than when they began. He wasn’t jaded or cynical, hadn’t been worn down by decades of repetitive garbage that slowly leached the wonder from his moviegoing experience.
Here’s the thing: this isn’t going to be some piece about the sanctity of early, formative moviegoing experiences or about how every movie is someone’s first movie so let’s not get annoyed at cliches and lazy storytelling. Fuck that noise. This isn’t going to be that piece because even as I watched that kid jump to his feet in horror at Paddington’s imminent demise, my own heart was dropping into my stomach. I knew, intellectually, that Paddington would not become a fiery ball of fur, but holy god in that split second I emotionally forgot that.
For just a moment that little kid and I were on the same emotional wavelength, and that’s the power of good cinema. It gets past your defenses and makes you believe. You know better, but you get so swept up in the moment and the emotion and the weight of the story that you believe it’s true, believe it’s all possible. You forget that you’re watching people pretending, people reading lines written in some coffee shop by a grumbling screenwriter, people standing on a stage where there isn’t even a ceiling, people talking to a CGI character that isn’t actually present. You forget that it is all, on some level, a lie. You believe it.
I believed it in Paddington. Just for a second, but it was real for that second. I liked that bear! I cared about what happened to him next, and I cared about what happened to the people around him. I don't know what the mathematical formula is for this; I don't know how many scenes with how many actions or how many lines of dialogue with what kinds of words make you care. I don't think there is a way to truly break it down into numbers or screenwriting guidelines. I think this is, honestly, as close as we get to magic in our lives, a transmutation of images and sound into true emotions that we actually feel. This isn't like when they play the brown note in the Paranormal Activity movies, a sound that creates a physiological effect on the audience. It's about a strange, undefinable thing where somehow this group of collaborators are able to take lies and make them briefly true.
So no, this isn’t a piece about letting the cliches and bad storytelling get a pass based on the reaction of a kid. This is a piece about how wonderful it is when filmmakers care enough to give that kid a reaction that’s rooted in good storytelling and grand characters. It’s a reminder that just because every movie is someone’s first movie it doesn’t have to be bad, or cheap. It can be made with an artistry and an attention to emotion that will trick that crotchety 41 year old film critic just as much as it does that excitable 8 year old boy. And maybe it's also a reminder that it's okay to let a movie - even one as inherently silly as Paddington - get through your jaded old defenses.