Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love Thy Neighbour: Paddington 2

I haven’t seen the first Paddington film from 2014, but after sitting through its sequel, that feels like a mistake I should rectify not because I feel like I missed some crucial backstory, but simply because I need more films like this in my life. Paddington 2 is a sweet and charming piece of family entertainment, never stooping to the treacly in its celebration of kindness, friendliness, and tolerance. It treks into some dark places in its effort to brighten up the world, while staying lively, fun, truthful. . . and full of marmalade. I loved it.

In a market stuffed with stories that trade in dire, apocalyptic stakes, here’s a film whose main plot conceit is the quest of a cute little bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) to find the perfect 100th birthday present for his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). His efforts to find odd jobs and earn enough money to buy her the gift lead to some enjoyable hijinks, but it all goes sour when he’s wrongfully accused of stealing the very book he was saving up to buy. Paddington is ripped away from the Brown family and his home in Windsor Gardens and thrown into prison, where his trademark joy and cordiality are put to the test. Director Paul King, late of the cult British comedy series The Mighty Boosh, brings his trademark comic flair to the world of Paddington, giving the film a light, breezy tone, genuine emotionality, and even a few of the surrealist touches that defined his TV work (including a sequence where Paddington leads Aunt Lucy on a tour of an illustrated pop-up book version of London). But the darker parts of the story like Paddington's being thrown in the slammer for a crime he didn’t commit give the film a chance to create real dramatic tension, and explore its themes in concrete and satisfying ways.

It’s hard not to view Paddington 2 as a political film, considering its direct engagement with highly politicized topics like the justice system, immigration, and racism. Paddington, ever the avatar of morality, is thrown into the midst of these systemic issues like a grenade of politeness and decency, changing the world by sheer force of proper behaviour. He always sees the good in people, and it makes dramatic sense to place him in a situation where that attitude would be the most difficult to stick to. This tension is chiefly represented by the prison chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), who terrifies the inmates with his vicious attitude but proves to be a softie once Paddington takes the time to talk to him and share Aunt Lucy’s famous marmalade recipe. In any other children’s movie, Knuckles would be a two-dimensional antagonist, chasing the hero around with a spoon until a bucket fell on his head. Hero escapes, audience points and laughs. But in Paddington’s world, the hero just . . . talks to him instead. Listens to him. Comes to understand that his behaviour is the result of insecurity and loneliness, not an innate, incurable evil. This sensitivity, and the subversion of tedious family-movie tropes that it allows, is a large part of what makes the film feel so special. Paddington makes it look easy for a single person to transform Britain’s prison system from a punitive institution to a rehabilitative one, and makes you believe that it could actually happen, too, if only we all treated our neighbours as well as he does.

In addition to the strength of its screenplay, Paddington 2 boasts some very fine performances from its who’s-who ensemble of accomplished UK actors. Ben Whishaw has a bit of a melancholy timbre to his voice, which might feel inappropriate for a character as sunny as Paddington, but he plays the role without a single drop of cynicism and makes what easily could have been a detached, intangible CGI creation into a warm and affable character. Gleeson is typically flat-out fantastic, giving Knuckles some subtle sensitivity. Paddington’s foster family, the Browns, are the kind of wonderfully flawed and earnest people that make up every supportive family. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins squabble and second-guess one another, and yet don’t allow these perfectly natural hostilities to torpedo the integrity of their family, or their love for one another. Peter Capaldi is great as the self-appointed neighbourhood watchman, whose intolerance of Paddington’s presence is Britain’s racism writ small (despite the fact that his squeaky-clean suburb is, tellingly, populated by people of many different ethnicities). The film dumps his Brexit-flavoured rhetoric in the gutter where it belongs, in favour of the Windsor Gardens community's showing its unity by rejecting Capaldi's character and banding together to help save Paddington. And Hugh Grant, as peacock-proud thespian Phoenix Buchanan, steals the show with a huge, hilarious performance that allows him to disappear into a variety of colourful villainous archetypes. He’s revealing some surprising range in his latest work, and here he gives what might be my favourite performance of his to date.

The transition from the bright, idealized Britain of Paddington 2 back to the real world was a truly rude awakening. Our reality is so different from the optimistic world of the film, filled with all its shortcomings and nowhere near enough of its altruism and understanding. Paddington is us as we’d like to be, and his London is the London that could, maybe, someday be . . . if we could all only behave a little bit more like this cuddly CGI bear. Paddington 2 might not change the world, but its message surely will.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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