Not to downplay any particular incidents or news, but lately: Everything feels like a waking nightmare, with every bit of newsworthy misfortune amplified at the same volume. The world has made me, at least, very raw of late, so the most inoffensive—at worst anodyne—examples of tenderness have been catalyst enough to reduce me to tears. Be it Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) compassion with Danny’s (Lucas Hedges) coming out in Lady Bird, or a diorama-decorated memory directed by Todd Haynes, one shouldn’t overestimate a certain kind of earnest niceness in film, a recognition of the cruelty of the world that does nothing to dampen the film’s restorative powers. What of Paddington Bear, whose films give him the spotlight as an Other amongst middle class Brits? Yes, friends, Paddington 2 had me in tears too
What the Paddington films share with those above is a sense of wonder for the ordinary, most likely the product of director Paul King and co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby’s acute ability to instill a palpable desire of belonging into a CGI teddy bear voiced by Ben Whishaw. We have, for better or worse (and I would argue the former), reached a point in computer generated technology in which Paddington’s eyes can dilate realistically. His eyes, then, say everything, open to any modicum of familial comfort. It is extremely ordinary to want to be a part of something, to crave the intimacy of loved ones.
But why does something so simple feel so outsized and enormously warm? Paddington 2 comes out on the other side of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, two political events that made decisive statements about how people in both regions conceptualize immigrant bodies: that they are unworthy of being protected, both a physical and ideological threat, their danger mythologized beyond statistics. The first Paddington, released in 2014, was emotionally prophetic in its illustration of the hokey moral panic wrought by xenophobes. Four years later, cultural output, from Wonder to Zootopia, bends over backwards for cute messages of acceptance to combat an overwhelming sense of displacement for the Other in society. Maybe because the constant expression on Paddington’s furry face reads, “I’m just happy to be here,” Paddington and Paddington 2 appear much like the bear himself: humble, with a very real desire to be a part of a larger community.
In an interview with producer and Harry Potter alumnus David Heyman, he remarks on the casting of Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington, referring to Whishaw as “youthful” and, notably, “slightly other,” suggesting the filmmaker’s intention to illustrate the character in the margins but attempting to situate himself within a larger, normative society. And Whishaw’s voice does provide that sweetness, that “other” quality, his elocution and speech patterns like that of someone who has practiced belonging, almost imaginarily perfect, endearingly affected. (His “right” and “polite” have a linguistic quality that does not quite belong in the modern middle class London in which he finds himself.)
Paddington’s journey begins in the first film, arriving in London from the forests of Darkest Peru. He stands upon his suitcase, scruffy and innocent. Around his neck is a tag that says, “Please look after this bear.” The ways in which the commuters of Paddington Station ignore the bear could be written off as generic selfishness, but outsiders and the impoverished are deliberately ignored in metro areas, a point accentuated by Mr. Brown’s (Hugh Bonneville) claim of “stranger danger.” Still, Mrs. Brown’s (Sally Hawkins) gentle heart leads the family to quasi-adopt Paddington, their lives enriched by the bear’s earnestness and genuine desire to be part of their lives. Paddington 2, for all of Paddington’s good will, sends the bear to prison after he’s mistakenly arrested for the theft of an antique book he had planned to buy for his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton).
In jail, Paddington once again straddles the line between excitement for building a new family for himself and the melancholy of losing the one he had. Worried of being forgotten serves as a trigger for his traumatic experiences with abandonment before the Browns ever even found him, there in jail amidst othered bodies: the incarcerated. Making friends with the intimidating prison chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), is as simple as having the substantial man take a bite of one of Paddington’s sandwiches. The point is marmaladian in its sweetness: Paddington becomes a part of a marginalized community, even reshaping the way inmates interact with one another, how they use food as a language of connection.
Paddington Bear might fit a “model minority” archetype, but the gaucheness of that role is undercut by Paddington’s deadpan approach to wanting to be good. While a beguiled, bewildered main character shocked at what has gone wrong is a standard for children’s slapstick, Paddington is driven by relaying the messages of goodness that his Aunt Lucy instilled in him. He genuinely wants to make the world right in what little way he can, and his sincerity lends the accidents in which he finds himself involved all the more endearment. He’s a spiritual successor to Buster Keaton: He has all the same breadth of physicality and liveliness that Keaton had, a similar undercurrent of melancholy “me?” in trips and falls, but the bear’s outsider perspective gives his character a unique place in the world, a London town that must make good on its branding of diversity or must face up to the reality that it’s not as accepting as it likes to think it is.
That Paddington comes face to face with the realities (well, sort of) of what London judicial law may look like when dealing with outsiders is what lends Paddington 2 a little punch: Why would a bear be sentenced to barberly harm and for a theft he didn’t commit for ten years? The sentence is tragic, only leavened by the film’s sense of humor (and a clever cameo from Richard Ayoade). While Paddington has little trouble making friends, being sent to prison seems to crystallize how hard intimacy and trust are to sustain for immigrant and othered bodies. Despite Paddington 2’s simplistic rendering (for the sake of its target audience), it bears a tactile understanding of what it feels like to have an entire system pivoted against your existence.
Much of Paddington’s behavior is predicated on the belief that assimilation will serve as solution, his ethos distilled breathlessly as his Aunt Lucy’s little bits of wisdom, like “If you’re nice and polite, the world will be right.” King presents a curious tension between Paddington’s idealism and the world at large, refusing to force the people and environment around the bear to fit that ideal, the confrontation between that set of beliefs and the reality of how some are prone to act (betrayal, lack of loyalty, etc.) taut and, for both the bear and his spectators, a little heartbreaking. From the moment he landed in Paddington Station in the first film, the bear must reconcile that few, even with a tidy set of manners and code of behavior intended for the most pleasant of multicultural existences, are inclined to give the Other a chance.
Which means that Paddington’s success is in finding and valuing those that are kind and compassionate. The films recognize how easy it is to be unkind towards immigrant bodies, and the fragility of their emotions, but finds the individuals whose tenderness and generosity offers those a safe haven. A utopia, even. Paddington Bear is embraced for his difference, and not in spite of it. The key to Paddington, and the world that’s been created for these films, is, as K. Austin Collins posits, empathy. Few films made for children have such an incisive perspective on the power of wanting to be wanted.