“If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
I stubbornly ignored all recommendations for the first Paddington film for a solid two years, mostly out of disgust & disinterest inspired by its advertising. The CGI design of the titular bear was especially a huge turn-off, giving off the feeling of a computer-animated Charmin commercial flavored with a pinch of British whimsy. When the unanimous praise for Paddington 2 started rolling in recently, I finally decided to give the first one a shot (it was lurking on Netflix, after all). The experience turned out much better than other recent experiments where I allowed critical praise to bully me into watching children’s films I had zero interest in (Moana and Coco both come to mind), but I still couldn’t quite match the consensus enthusiasm. Paddington is a decent, occasionally clever children’s film about an undeniably lovable bear. Paddington 2, it turns out, is a massive improvement on that initial outing: a total, absurdly wholesome joy. Where the first film only got past my heartless cynic defenses enough to elicit a few chuckles & “awwwww”s, the sequel made me cry for the last five minutes solid, both out of grief & out of elation. Paddington 2 reminds me of the trajectory of the Babe series, where the first film is a simple, adorable portrait of a wholesome talking animal and the second, Pig in the City, is a feverishly ambitious work of fine art that contrasts that lovable animal against a harshly cruel world that does not deserve them. Like Babe, Paddington makes everything he touches better through pure, unashamed kindness, so it only makes sense that his own film franchise would only get better the more time it spends with him.
I suspect this is a holdover from the Paddington storybooks, but the real crux of this series is its function as an allegory about modern immigration. An orphaned bear “from deepest, darkest Peru,” Paddington is a sweetly polite, courteous cub who is shunned on sight by most strangers he greets in London. Peter Capadli is the most flagrant racist in Paddington’s life, referring to the bear as “an undesirable” and forming a “community defense force” to keep an eye on his potentially criminal behavior. The first Paddington film profiles a white, affluent London family (featuring Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville & The Shape of Water’s Sally Hawkins) as they grow to love the bear for the kindness inside him, despite their initial prejudices. Paddington 2 finds their neighborhood transformed into a harmonious cultural tapestry where people of widely varied backgrounds coexist in functional peace, thanks largely to Paddington’ s bottomless aptitude for kindness & politeness. We then see how grim the world becomes without the impossibly wholesome influence of this Peruvian bear. While merely attempting to purchase a birthday present for his aunt, Paddington is framed for a white man’s crime and leveled with a ten-year prison sentence, thanks largely to old-fashioned racial profiling. Of course, he makes the best of this situation as he can, transforming his Dickensian hellhole of a prison into something resembling a Wes Anderson confectionary or a live-action adaptation of Animal Crossing. It’s still a difficult-to-stomach injustice, though, one that leads to a speeding train conclusion more befitting of an action thriller than a children’s movie. I don’t want to spoil any of the weird, emotionally traumatic places the movie goes as its story flies off the rails in a delightfully excessive climax, but I will say this: when Paddington does finally get his aunt a birthday present, I cried like an idiot baby. I’m having a difficult time just writing about it without crying; it’s that goddamn wholesome.
Besides its heartwarming empathy for immigration narratives and general, genuine sweetness, the Paddington franchise also impress as a visual achievement. The dollhouse miniatures of the first film were an excellent start for an aesthetic perfected in the second. Paddington 2 is a multimedia sensory experience, mixing in 2-D pencil-sketch animation, pop-up book landscapes, and even more complex miniatures to convincingly capture a sense of childlike wonder. There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson (whose Grand Budapest Hotel feels like an especially strong influence here), but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. It also backs up its precious visual indulgences with an informed, classic sense of physical comedy, directly influenced by silent era legends like Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton. I could see an outsider being turned off by the promised whimsy of the film’s steampunk circus backdrop, treasure map side plot, and cutesy pop-up book illustration asides, but director Paul King carefully arranges all these visual influences & aesthetic touches with such a careful sense of craft that it’s near impossible not to be won over by them in the moment. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.
I don’t want to suggest that watching the first Paddington movie was a waste of time or a total letdown. If nothing else, it functions as a kind of superhero origin story (if kindness & politeness can be understood as superpowers), laying a lot of the visual & metaphorical groundwork for what’s accomplished in its magnificent sequel. It’s worth watching just to get accustomed to Paddington’s world, as everyone from the director to single-scene side characters returned for the second go. Everything about Paddington 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, though. The physical comedy is funnier. The visual craft is more inspired. The villain is more entertaining & complex (I swear Hugh Grant is channeling Theatre of Blood-era Vincent Price here). Even Paddington’s impossibly sweet selflessness in the face of prejudice – as he sacrifices his freedom to improve someone else’s birthday – comes across more clearly. Paddington 2 is the perfect, heartwarmingly empathetic children’s film confectionary everyone’s been trying to sell me with the first movie for the last two years. Now it’s my turn to be an annoyance and hyperbolically promote this picture to people who have zero interest in watching it.