Paddington 2 (2017) – dir. Paul King

At the time of this writing, the news cycle in the United States has been dominated by multiple pieces of footage involving a confrontation outside the Lincoln Memorial between students from Covington Catholic High School, Black Hebrews, and Native American activist Nathan Phillips. The narrative is still unfolding–a few hours ago, a woman released a video of the MAGA-clad teenagers harassing her and her friend prior to the incident in question–so, to try to describe the event would be futile. And as the story has developed, my feelings on the issue have become less and less clear.

Regardless, I have a difficult time sympathizing with the Covington students, who were in D.C. for the March for Life, which I find ideologically disagreeable; this, to say nothing of the inherently white supremacist nature of the MAGA movement.  I also struggle to sympathize with the Black Hebrews who set off the chain of events with aggressively homophobic taunts. Enter  Phillips, a Vietnam veteran who, following the Indigenous Peoples’ March earlier that day, saw the mounting conflict, and thought that intervening could defuse tensions. I see Phillips, a man who not only fought for a country whose history includes massacring Native Americans, but saw two inherently problematic groups he could’ve ignored, but chose to exercise peace. I think he did a brave and difficult thing.

And yet, I didn’t make the connection between Phillips and Paddington Brown until I watched Paddington 2 on a whim earlier today. I have been smitten by Paddington upon initial . viewing, and Paddington 2 is no exception, and manages to improve upon the first film. Yet, the parallels between a very real peaceful protestor and “darkest Peru’s” favorite son are inextricable to me. Perhaps a hostile, deeply political dispute is not the most appropriate comparison to make to a kids movie. Except that Paddington 2 isn’t just any kids movie. The second cinematic adaptation from Michael Bond’s Paddington children’s book series, Paddington 2 is genuinely perceptive and compassionate that would be a perfectly satisfying tale by itself, but director/co-writer Paul King shows as much affection for the story as Paddington does for the Browns, his fellow Londoners, and his fellow inmates with whom he’s incarcerated with for much of the film. As a skillfully-crafted, heartfelt adventure that provokes some difficult questions, Paddington 2 is not only the best film of 2018–as released stateside–but a definitive ethical dissection represented like little else in cinema.

Paddington 2 picks up a little while after Paddington. Where the first film establishes Paddington Brown (Ben Wishaw) as part of the Brown family after being sent to London by his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton)–whom he writes frequently while she resides at a Home for Retired Homes–Paddington 2 finds Paddington already a fixture of the neighborhood of the sunny, lovely Windsor Gardens. He reminds his neighbors to grab their keys before leaving the house, makes sure they have something for breakfast, and even helps their garbage collectors study for their exams. The only resident who remains unimpressed with Paddington is none other than Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), whose overt xenophobia, coupled with is position as a neighborhood watchman, make him rather unpleasant. For the most part, though, Paddington is beloved by his community, and he loves them back.

To commemorate Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, Paddington sets his sights on a one-of-a-kind antique pop-up book of London from Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent). When working in a barber shop doesn’t work out–botching the haircut of Judge Gerald Biggleswade (Tom Conti) in the first of a few terrific set pieces–he takes to washing the windows of Windsor Gardens–depicted in a montage accompanied by a calypso band from the first film. When Paddington tips off waning actor Phenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) about the pop-up book, Paddington finds himself framed by Buchanan in disguise for the theft. After a damning case from the state, Paddington finds himself in jail.

Though Paddington enters a Shawshank-esque prison on the wrong foot–which is exacerbated when he throws a red sock in with the black-and-white inmate uniforms, turning them pink–he ends up becoming a sort of Andy Dufresne after sharing an emergency marmalade sandwich with the intimidating prison cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). In yet another calypso-scored montage, we find Paddington making the best of his time in prison. He shares his marmalade recipe with the inmates. Soon, everyone is offering their favorite confections–seriously, this is The Florida Project-levels of confounding diets. When Paddington arrives at prison, the setting is gray and unsettling. In no time, however, Paddington brings color to the prison. Everyone is happier. Even the main guard reads them bedtime stories. The prison falls in love with Paddington,  who is resolute in Aunt Lucy’s imparted wisdom, “If you look for the good in people, you’ll find it.”

Meanwhile, Windsor Garden is noticeably colder without Paddington to bring folks together. The Browns all pitch in–even Judy (Madeleine Harris) publishes an underground newspaper that maintains Paddington’s innocence–doing what they can to exonerate Paddington, but are having trouble tracking a single lead. In the meantime, Phoenix, playing various other characters, is catching the attention of law enforcement, as he uses the pop-up book to solve clues based on the landmarks featured in the book. Soon, Mary (Sally Hawkins) and Henry (Hugh Bonneville) catch wind of Phoenix’s grift. When the Browns miss a prison visit, a discouraged Paddington joins Knuckles and a couple other inmates in a terrific breakout sequence. After he splits up from them in London, his story and the Browns’ converge at Paddington’s namesake train station.  The final confrontation is a thrilling, uniformly hilarious, and a shockingly emotional climax–one that echos Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy saving Paddington from falling over a waterfall.

So much can be said about the filmmaking behind Paddington 2. King’s influences are fairly obvious, with Paddington finding himself in Chaplin-esque mix-ups; even the prison break is a riff on Modern Times by way of The Grand Budapest Hotel. That latter reference is also unsurprising, considering the dollhouse quality King adopts from Wes Anderson. Perhaps King’s most prominent forerunner is Ernst Lubitsch, whose hilarious, often provocative comedies exist in a post-industrial revolution Europe that serves as a backdrop to explore the social landscape of the era. What King does, however, is take that a step further. His sets are ornate, and his compositions are symmetrical, but the camera glides through a post-20th century London, flying through the streets and buildings with curiosity and excitement.

King’s aesthetic is something out of a storybook, which is a tender homage to Bond’s Paddington series. King also takes this literally when, early in the film, Paddington has a fantasy of exploring London with Aunt Lucy, as if they are walking through the pages of the pop-up book. Not enough can be said about the numerous set pieces, which are elegantly orchestrated, each sequence routinely distinct and awe-inspiring–my favorite being a credits epilogue in the vein of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey which also includes a Busby Berkeley-style musical number. As pure cinema, Paddington 2 is gushing with pure audacity. There’s not a wasted frame in sight, cleverly packing in as many gags, or sensitively evoking as much pathos as the plot calls for.

Without a doubt, Paddington 2 is bursting with storytelling ideas, but what of that story? More specifically, what of what that story is saying? Well, Paddington has always been a story about immigration. In King’s first Paddington film, Paddington is a South American refugee, displaced from his home after an earthquake–one that takes his Uncle Pastuzo. Though Paddington 2 reads as a commentary on Brexit–embodied by loner Knuckles and narcissist Phoenix Buchanan–the nationalist anxieties surrounding immigrants reflected in both Mr. Curry and the justice system allude to pronounced attitudes towards non-white groups in the U.S.–one thinks of the undocumented immigrants detained around the U.S. in abandoned Walmarts. Paddington is a bear. When he’s tried, Paddington is convicted on circumstantial evidence by a prejudiced judge. Paddington is visibly, superficially different, and is treated accordingly. King is never polemical or heavy-handed. Much like Chris Noonan’s Babe, the politics are in plain sight; they don’t have to be blurted out.

Of course, none of this would work without a game cast. There is nary a weak link in sight. Each character is identifiable, both in King’s and Simon Farnaby’s scrupulous writing, and in every performance. Sally Hawkins is as enchanting and hilarious as ever–reminding us that she, as acclaimed as Hawkins usually is, is one of the most under-appreciated performers working today. Hugh Bonneville’s pragmatist with a wild-side in the corner of his being would be frustrating if we didn’t know that Henry both loves Paddington, and is the most delightful wild card. And as many good things can be said about Brendan Gleeson, or Peter Capaldi, or the unimpeachable Julie Walters, the clear standout is Hugh Grant. His boisterous, self-obsessed thespian Phoenix Buchanan is a veritable joke machine, while exuding just enough menace and capability that his presence and actions have weight. Still, the soul of the movie belongs to Paddington himself, as Ben Wishaw’s soft-spoken tone imbues London’s foremost marmalade fiend with a youthful, dutiful hue that bridges the uncanny between a computer-generated bear and the heart.

While many white supremacists malign Mexicans and Middle Easterners alike as inhuman, Paddington Brown is acutally inhuman. In most iterations, Paddington is incorporeal to his audience, and yet, he is impossibly lovable. As he tells Knuckles, “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” Despite being greatly challenged, disappointed, and is even let down by the law. Paddington rarely has many answers beyond treating others well, protecting those he loves, and standing up for his values–which sometimes includes a hard stare towards those who have forgotten their manners. Against all odds, this works. Paddington wins everyone over with his character. He successfully demonstrates pure kindness and empathy, if not as a cure-all, at least as a catalyst for others to be kind to one another. Being a CG bear doesn’t matter. All that matters is how he affects others.

I can’t stop thinking of what is otherwise a sort of throwaway line: If we are kind and polite, the world will be right. My thoughts also turn to Nathan Phillips. He could’ve let two terrible groups destroy each other. Maybe Phillips knows war, or his ancestors’ history of genocide all too well. Maybe he knows that violence, or actions motivated by hate just don’t work. All Phillips did was stand between two groups of people. That sounds like a minor gesture, but who knows how dangerous that could’ve been. And if nothing else, think of how much we’re talking about that. The story could’ve been so much worse.

And then I think of how I reacted upon first hearing about that occurrence in Washington. How much I loathed those students, and how much I loathed the Black Hebrews for complicating my perception of them. But then, I think of who I was when I was a teenager. Disregarding all of the stupid decisions I made, I’m embarrassed by the way I looked at undocumented immigrants, and I’m embarrassed by how long I spent being homophobic. I’m embarrassed by all of the views I held that I would swear were right. Maybe I never openly advocated for a fascist movement, or openly made fun of the customs of someone trying to help me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t stand by some troubling ideas. The major difference is that my life was not put on blast for the world to see. And I think of who I am now, how I got to reconfigure my attitude towards others , and how others might feel if they knew how I used to be.

I am not Paddington, whose animalized Fred Rogers philosophy is easy to grasp, but that takes real courage to live. But I want to believe in Paddington, and I want to believe in Paddington 2. As badly as I also want to keep MAGA supporters or convicted felons in boxes–of varying degrees of realness–maybe what I want isn’t as important as a truth that is incompatible with vilifying others with profoundly problematic views and practices. As much as I want to ignore that MAGA kids and bigoted Black Hebrews are people, in all the complexity that implies, I can’t. If we are kind and polite, the world will be right. I can feel readers bristling at this simplistic mantra, but here’s the thing: What if we approached these dark times with goodness and patience? We’re conditioned to believe that these qualities are weak or impractical, but that just isn’t true. Brute force is appealing and often effective in the short term, but there’s always retaliation. What if there is strength in appealing to the inherent worth of one’s humanity, even when an individual is flawed? Even if confronted by those who might not deserve so much understanding. And what if we did that while also still standing up for those who are marginalized?

Because the real draw of Paddington 2 is that other adage: If we look for the good in others, we’ll find it. Paddington 2 believes in the richness of every person, that how we recognize and deal with others does not go unnoticed, and that even people who are rightfully condemned and imprisoned can reform. These are lessons we’re teaching children, but even grown-ups struggle to learn and internalize them. No, nothing gets better overnight–not even Paddington 2 would go that far. But changing is possible, even when change and allowing others to change is painfully demanding. And if nothing else, being an example, the way Paddington is example, makes for a brighter, safer world than taking up arms at every chance. Even though I am hardly the moral equivalent of Paddington Brown, I see Paddington 2 and I want to be a better man–I may have also been watching As Good as It Gets. What makes Paddington 2 a masterpiece is the extent one is compelled to think about what being “a better person” really means.

Rating – 10/10

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