You really can’t blame people for not being excited for the release of Paddington, the live action adaptation of Michael Bond’s classic children’s stories about a cute little bear that is adopted by an English family. Hollywood has spent the last few decades doing a more than horrible job of adapting characters of popular children’s pop culture and literature. Movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Alvin and the Chipmunks are so nauseatingly bad that I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to see another live action movie aimed at kids ever in your life. But then again, Paddington wasn’t made by a Hollywood studio, and arrives to the deserted cinematic landscape of mid-January to prove that -despite the jokes made at its expense sight-unseen- a children’s movie with a cute CG character at its center doesn’t have to be bad.
Paddington is not only not bad, it is actually really good. A charming comedy that reminded me of the mid-nineties wave of quality chidren’s films that included Babe and Danny DeVito’s Matilda. Considering he is the writer (he shares a “story by” credit with Hamish McColl) and director of the movie, I think the man responsible for leading the charge in making Paddington as good as it is, is Paul King, a man whose work I was inadvertently familiar with, since he directed many episodes of The Mighty Boosh, a surreal British sitcom whose humor is much more adult-oriented, but does share a passion for silliness that can be clearly found in Paddington‘s funniest moments.
The movie won me over pretty quickly, when I remembered that Paddington bear, while being a supremely British creation, is Peruvian. As you might know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I am also Peruvian. As you might also know, coming from the “third world”, and seeing your country being depicted in big budget movies can be frustrating. Paddington opens with young Paddington (who hasn’t been given that name at that point) living in “Darkest Peru” with his aunt and uncle, and in a couple lines of expositional dialogue, King shows more thoughtfulness in his depiction of the country than big shots like Steven Spielberg, whose depiction of Peru in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was outright offensive (and could have avoided with a simple Google search).
So, the considerate portrait of my country of origin was nice, but what got me really excited was that Paddington didn’t shy away from being a story about immigration. Shortly after the opening moments, there is an earthquake that destroys Paddington’s home, and thus, he is forced to travel to Britain, where he hopes to be adopted into a new family. The wide-eyed bear has a tougher time than he expected finding a new home, but not too long after arriving in London, Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) takes note of him, and convinces stuffy Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) to take the bear home, if only for one night.
It’s interesting to read Paddington as a story about immigration, because whether or not the filmmakers intended such an overt political statement, the movie can easily be read as an argument against xenophobia. It’s said practically explicitly when Millicent, an evil taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman, who is obsessed with adding Paddington to her collection visits the Browns’ neighbor, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), and tries to get him on her side by pointing out what will happen when “they” (referring to the bears) start moving into, and disrupting, his quiet little neighborhood.
Much of the comedy in Paddington is derived from the bear’s unfamiliarity with the way things work in a “civilized society” such as Great Britain, the type of “fish out of water” humor that, when being inflicted on a person, could be easily seen as offensive. Because Paddington is a cartoon bear, it becomes adorably inoffensive. Even though he makes a lot of silly things, he is always good natured, and being naive and ignorant of how things work in England actually becomes an asset when he inadvertently stops a wallet thief.
In this way, Paddington’s assimilation into the Brown family, becomes a metaphor for an immigrant’s assimilation into a foreign culture. In the Browns, Paddington finds a home away from home, and in Paddington, the Browns find a valuable addition to the family. Not unlike Mary Poppins, Paddington comes to teach the Browns to value each other, and most importantly, to listen to each other’s thoughts and desires. What might seem like a tacked-on emotional arc typical of children’s films, here becomes essential to a message of understanding and communication.
What’s even more important is that Paddington does something that many movies about (modern) immigration are hesitant to do. It allows the story to be presented to us through the eyes of the immigrant. This isn’t a story about Sandra Bullock teaching a bunch of Sudanese refugees how to play Football or any such faux-liberal nonsense. This is the story of a Peruvian bear using his good-hearted nature to find a new home. Not all movies must make a political statement, but I think it’s a plus when filmmakers take the time to craft a story about important values, especially in children’s movies. And when the movie is as witty and entertaining as Paddington, learning to accept people that are different from you becomes a delight.
Grade: 8 out of 10.