Paddington is oh so British, as British as black cabs and pints and a good curry. It’s whimsical and charming, and refreshingly modern - but still has a timeless quality that keeps the best children’s stories eternal.
Based on the beloved children's’ lit character, Paddington takes the signifiers of the 1958 original - a hat, a duffle coat, a love of marmalade, an origin in Darkest Peru - and subtly and cheekily updates them for the 21st century, injecting new life into a bear who might have stayed stuck in a post-war, post-colonialist context.
But before we get to Paddington’s post-colonialist, pro-immigration message we must tackle the question of whether it’s any good, and it is with great confidence that I can say it is. More than good, it’s excellent and wonderful, sweet-hearted without being thick-headed and slyly comedic in a way that the best Looney Tunes always were - appreciable by both children and the parents dragged along for the ride. It’s knowing and yet not ironic, a balancing act that director Paul King makes seem so simple you wonder why more children’s movies can’t pull it off.
Paddington opens with newsreel footage of a famous explorer coming to Darkest Peru, where he intends to kill and stuff new animals for the Geographic Society. But when he meets two talking bears he throws away his ideas of conquering them and becomes friends, instilling in them a love of both London and marmalade. Years later those bears are the caretaker of their young nephew Paddington when a terrible - and actually frightening - earthquake hits. Paddington is sent to live in London, where the explorer promised them they would always be welcome.
But modern London is a strange and cold place, and Paddington finds himself in Paddington Station, sitting in a corner, a tag that reads “Please look after this bear” around his neck. He is found by the Brown family, who are split down the middle on the subject of the wayward ursine youth - dad and daughter want nothing to do with him while mother and son feel compelled to rescue the boy.
One thing I love about Paddington is the way Paddington is accepted as a bear. People notice it, and they slightly remark upon it, but it isn’t the driving force of their interactions with him. No one is shocked or befuddled by the presence of a bear, and while that obviously serves the film’s basic immigration subtext it also adds a layer of warm magical realism. Yes, the movie has the origin of the hat and the coat and the marmalade, but it isn’t the kind of origin movie that bends over backwards to explain a talking bear in the city. The line is drawn in the right place.
As the film goes on you forget Paddington is even a bear anyway. He is so well animated, and Ben Whishaw’s sweet-natured line delivery so naturalistic and enchanting, that you simply engage with Paddington as a character. That’s why his bumbling antics remain charming as opposed to irritating - you like this bear, and you know he means very well, even as he causes a massive flood or a three car pile-up.
What makes Paddington truly special is the visual flair Paul King brings to the film. King directed the entire UK comedy series The Mighty Boosh, and in Paddington he doesn’t feel the need to be shackled by absolute realism. He is able to indulge in flights of visual fancy, from a dollhouse that shows the emotional states of the members of the Brown family to memories that pop off the pages of books and come alive. Paddington is more inventive and adventurous in its visual storytelling - and more demanding of audiences in this way - than most mainstream ‘important’ movies.
Paddington would be a marvelous movie if it were just as funny and sweet and exactingly well-made as it is, but more than all of those things it’s also very progressive. The bear from Darkest Peru is cast as a stand-in for England’s changing demographics, and the movie makes the argument that even the most grizzled and old-fashioned Englishman (in this case represented by Peter Capaldi) can come to understand the inherent humanity of accepting newcomers into your society. But the film plays this very subtly, and the movie’s anti-colonial message is so lightly sketched that it will slowly sink into the subconscious minds of the children watching the film over and over (and this will be a movie children watch again and again on home video). Paddington offers an excellent example of how to fit a metaphor into your movie without making the whole movie a slave to your metaphor.
Paddington is a delightful movie that is coming at the exact right time; it’s the beginning of the new year and this film reminds us that cinema can be fun and light and smart and joyful all at once. And it can give us a strong, hopeful message at the same time.