2020 has been a crappy year. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. Unless perhaps you’re Joe Biden or happen to own a lot of stock in Zoom, the last 12 months have almost certainly been a horror show of the highest order. Many of us have been reaching for something… anything to make the very bitter pills of a global pandemic and an impending Brexit go down a little easier. For me, that antidote has been Paddington Bear.
Against the backdrop of a year of darkness and terror, Paddington has been an oasis of warmth, tolerance and wholesome charm. In a world that so often teaches us to prize selfishness and deception as ways to get ahead, Paddington is a symbol of what can be achieved through politeness, civility and a willingness to see the best in absolutely everyone.
Peru’s most adorable export hadn’t really played much of a part in my life until director Paul King and StudioCanal brought him to the big screen. The books were not a presence in my household and the 1970s TV adaptation was considerably before my time. I could’ve identified his trademark appearance – red hat and a blue duffel coat – and I could probably, at a push, have told you that he was created by author Michael Bond. Beyond that, though, I hadn’t really crossed paths with the ursine hero until I sat down in a crowded cinema with very little expectations, just a few weeks before Christmas 2014.
Bear on the Big Screen
It would be wrong to say I was immediately blown away by that incarnation of Paddington. The bones of it were those of a very conventional family movie, with Nicole Kidman as the scenery-chewing villain posing a threat to the life of the animal protagonist. It’s not exactly the stuff of great innovation. However, the movie was legitimately charming and witty, conveying an elegantly poised immigration subtext that managed to pack a punch while remaining mercilessly free of cynicism. It was a love letter to London and to Britain as a whole, but one that was certainly aware of the divisions at risk of cleaving the nation in two. Good job that divide never came about, right? Right? Why are you laughing?
Every crucial ingredient in the Paddington recipe was present and correct in that movie. Paul King proved to be an inspired choice behind the camera, bringing the Python-esque weirdness of his work on The Mighty Boosh to the broader family material in an unusual, but perfect marriage. The same was true of Ben Whishaw, who immediately fit the voice of Paddington like a glove. Colin Firth had originally been cast to perform the role but, according to the star, came to a mutual agreement with the studio that his voice didn’t fit. He was right. This take on Paddington as a sort of curious preteen called for a voice younger and more naïve than that of a 60-year-old man, however talented that Oscar-winning sexagenarian might be.
If the ingredients were there in 2014, they came to the perfect boil three years later when King returned for Paddington 2. King again wrote the script, but this time enlisted a co-writer in the shape of Boosh alumnus and Horrible Histories troupe member Simon Farnaby, who made a brief appearance in the first film. On the face of it, this was an even simpler and more by-the-numbers story than its predecessor. Paddington was seeking to earn money to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy, but found himself framed as a criminal by Hugh Grant’s villainous actor Phoenix Buchanan. Straightforward stuff for anyone who has ever seen a family blockbuster adventure before.
With the acknowledgement that I’m about to make a big claim, Paddington 2 is the greatest movie sequel ever made. It improves on the already excellent original film in every way, from its storytelling to its comedy to its casting and everything in between. Much as Goldfinger finessed the James Bond formula that had been seeded in the previous two films, Paddington 2 does that job for its own franchise. The critical world seems to agree too, with Paddington 2 enshrined as the most successful film in the history of Rotten Tomatoes – maintaining a 100% approval score with more reviews than any other holder of that distinction.
The triumph of Paddington 2 is in its ability to do the simple things very well indeed. Its characters are not unnecessarily complex, but are given extra facets in the wake of the first film, with new additions such as the various residents of Windsor Gardens afforded room to develop. Few films would find quite as much time for the unlikely, delightfully under-played romance between Ben Miller’s shut-in war vet and Jessica Hynes’s magazine kiosk owner. The plot also, as previously mentioned, is relatively straightforward, but is a true test case for the power of setup and pay-off. Every minor detail about the Browns laid out by Paddington’s opening voiceover comes around again in the third act, as the family tries desperately to rescue Paddington from the clutches of Grant – delivering the performance of his life as the preening Phoenix. Mrs Brown’s long distance swimming plays a key part, as does young Jonathan’s knowledge of steam trains, while Mr Brown’s youthful aptitude for the fairground game of coconut shy allows him to land a non-lethal knockout blow on Phoenix.
When, of course, there’s that ending. Having been rescued from certain death by his former fellow inmates, Paddington wakes up in bed having missed the window to send a gift to Aunt Lucy in Peru. The Browns, though, seem less concerned about this – and it’s immediately clear why. Every single viewer watching that scene knows what the punchline will be, but none of that lessens the visceral emotional hammer blow that arrives when Paddington walks downstairs to his cheering friends and neighbours and opens the front door, revealing that his beloved aunt has flown to London to see him. Their subsequent embrace makes the phrase “tear-jerker” feel like the ultimate understatement. I’ve cried buckets every time I’ve seen it since. And I’ve seen it a lot.
It’s not that Paddington 2 reinvents the wheel or does anything massively surprising. But it shows that great execution should be the ultimate focus of a filmmaker. The movie is perfect cinema that, in an incredible 2017 on the big screen which included Get Out and Logan among other excellent works, managed to be one of the best films of the year.
The Paddington Universe
It has been three years since Paddington 2 and there’s still no third movie in sight, although we have learned this year that neither King nor Farnaby will be directly involved when it does arrive. So why then am I writing this now and yabbering on about Paddington as if these movies have relevance to our current times? The answer lies in the extended world of Paddington. He’s a bear with his fingers in a lot of pies – or perhaps jars of marmalade.
First, there’s the Nick Jr. animated series The Adventures of Paddington. Whishaw returns to voice Paddington in a selection of brief adventures of exactly the sort of low-stakes kind you’d expect in a teatime cartoon. One episode sees him befriend a pigeon – henceforth known as Pigeonton – while another culminates in him taking part in a backyard game of football with curmudgeonly neighbour Mr Curry. It’s an undemanding kids’ show, but it’s one given an injection of must-watch appeal by the presence of Whishaw and the sheer power of Paddington.
Even more significant than Paddington’s continued presence on the small screen, though, is his social media profile. He has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter and another 50,000 over on Instagram. These accounts are not just the usual bland, corporate exercises you’d expect, but they burst with life and bona fide affection. For those who run these social media enterprises, they’re clearly a labour of love. Twitter features pearls of Paddington’s wisdom, while the Instagram is largely devoted to adorable photos of children and pets wearing their best Paddington cosplay. The unique charm of the character means that the accounts are able to get away with spouting the sort of banal nonsense that would usually put my teeth on edge, if it were printed on a cutesy wooden plaque and hung on a wall with artfully frayed string.
For example, in August, the @paddingtonbear Twitter account wrote: “Before I go to sleep tonight I’m going to write down all the good things that happened today.” Earlier that month, they tweeted: “There’s an adventure to be enjoyed every day… it just depends on our expectations”. These trite platitudes would be utterly hideous coming from anybody else but, from Paddington, they’re completely bear-able. Sorry. In fact, bearable is an understatement. Imagined in the soothing voice of Ben Whishaw and coming from the most likeable character in recent movie history, they’re legitimately lovely.
And loveliness is the thing that has been in short supply this year. 2020 has been plagued with cynicism, with tribalism and with a refusal to embrace anything that’s twee and likeable enough to act as a balm to the constant onslaught of bad news. Film fans, and indeed critics, have a nasty habit of talking down anything that works on a primarily sentimental level. There’s a suggestion, it seems, that grasping for a straightforward emotional response from an audience is somehow less artistically valid than stimulating the intellectual faculties of viewers. Really, though, that couldn’t be more wrong. The legendary critic Roger Ebert famously described movies as a machine for generating empathy – and few can make as strong a claim to achieving that as the Paddington films.
An Ursine Hero
There might not have been a new Paddington movie in 2020, but that doesn’t mean cinema’s loveliest bear hasn’t had a big presence out in the world. His mantra that “if you are kind and polite, the world will be right” has been a valuable shred of hope for me, and the occasional appearance of a new Paddington tweet is enough to brighten any day. Sometimes it’s a silly bear pun, sometimes it’s something as banal as asking which kind of cake he should choose that day and occasionally it’s an entirely welcome urging to everyone to wear a face mask to protect against the coronavirus.
Movies are the ultimate escape from everything happening in the world, and Paddington is about as good as it gets. Earlier this year, I hosted a podcast episode in which I and comedian Caitlin Durante – co-host of the excellent Bechdel Cast – spent the best part of an hour dissecting and discussing the genius of Paddington 2. It’s genuinely one of the more fun things I’ve managed to accomplish during this hellscape of a year. A few weeks later, when the UK’s national lockdown lifted over the summer, one of my first actions was a pilgrimage into London to visit the new Paddington statue which occupies a bench in the middle of Leicester Square. A prominent representation in Central London – as well as the long-standing statue at Paddington Station – is nothing more than this delightful bear deserves.
The success of the newest incarnation of Paddington is a clear manifestation of the genuinely generation-spanning appeal of Bond’s creation. The author, who passed away in June 2017 on the last day of the Paddington 2 shoot, remained proud of his creation and intimately involved with its legacy until the final years of his life. He has a touching cameo in the 2014 Paddington movie, raising a glass to his animal creation as he passes in a taxi. Bond’s character has always appealed to young and old alike, and that hasn’t changed in the 21st century.
Modern children’s movies often get carried away with the notion of providing jokes and references for parents, as well as the kids they’re aiming to get through the door. There will be a cheeky innuendo or a bit of sly politics in among the slapstick and poop material. But the Paddington movies eschew such low-hanging fruit in favour of something more universal. They just keep it simple in the knowledge that this sort of stuff works for everyone. Good cinema is good cinema, regardless of whether you’re five years old or 95 years old.
And that’s the secret of Paddington. The reason he feels like a beacon of hope in one of the human race’s darkest hours. He’s not a corporate balancing act, designed to appease different paymasters or created via a boardroom of four-quadrant focus groups, flowcharts and spreadsheets. He was born out of love and remains born out of love to this day. In 2020, we all need a little more of that. It’s not the solution to COVID-19 or right-wing populism or the fact that Nigel Farage still has a career, but there’s nothing wrong with something that has the courage to just be uncomplicatedly nice.
As Paddington tweeted in July, somewhat revising his mantra for a new era: “Being kind and polite won’t make every thing right. But it’s a good place to start.”