Despite positive reviews from the likes of Peter Bradshaw and Mark Kermode, not to mention a glowing recommendation from a friend who is something of a cinema buff, I still approached Paddington with trepidation writes George Binette. Surely, a film featuring a small anthropomorphised bear must be a sickly sweet Christmas confection, marketed at children with the lure of mildly ‘adult’ humour for parents and guardians, hard-pressed to keep kids entertained over the holiday period or desperately keen to recapture something of their own lost childhoods.
I have to confess, however, that I did not prove immune from Paddington’s considerable charm, wit and spirited performances, and in the current climate of anti-migrant sentiment I’m rather pleased it has gained a wide audience. After the Lego Movie, it was Studio Canal’s second biggest ‘family orientated’ release of 2014. This, after all, is not simply good-natured entertainment, but a film with a message.
For those completely unfamiliar with young Paddington’s background, he is an orphaned bear, hailing from ‘darkest Peru’, who has acquired a remarkable command of English from his elderly aunt and uncle. They had encountered a British explorer from the Royal Geographical Society, who cannot bring himself to kill them for specimens and instead introduces them to his language and marmalade. A devastating earthquake claims the uncle’s life and Paddington’s aged aunt decides that his best hope is to travel to London, albeit as a stowaway, equipped only with the explorer’s hat, a tag around his neck and a case packed with marmalade jars.
Paddington manages to remain hidden until the end of the voyage and then secretes himself aboard a Royal Mail train destined for the west London station from whence comes his name. Bereft, disorientated and ignored on a station platform, the young bear catches the attention of the white, upper-middle class but not altogether happy Brown family returning from a disastrous day trip. Over the objections of Mr Brown, a former hippie biker turned City risk analyst, Paddington returns to their Kensington abode. Comic mayhem ensues as the Peruvian bear struggles with the ‘facilities’ in a 21st century London bathroom and there is more slapstick silliness to come, but the film takes a serious turn as Mrs Brown takes Paddington to visit Mr Gruber’s second-hand shop to determine the pedigree of his hat.
The eccentric Gruber swiftly bonds with Paddington as a fellow migrant, though in Gruber’s case it becomes clear that he was a child of the Kindertransport. A calypso band evoking the SS Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrant workers makes periodic appearances. Meanwhile, the Browns’ nosy and mean-spirited neighbour, Reginald Curry, is keen on reporting the alien Paddington to the ‘authorities’ and it’s apparent that he’s not concerned with animal welfare. The hapless Curry instead becomes the pawn of a stylishly sinister taxidermist from the National History Museum only to realise her interest in him is anything but romantic and that she wants Paddington dead. Perhaps Mr Curry has realised in the nick of time where his prejudice could lead.
In short, the ‘message’ of the film is an old-fashioned liberal one encouraging tolerance and the embrace of diversity. And this is not such a bad message in a country where ‘liberal’ politicians seem incapable of speaking it as UKIP dictates the terms of an ‘immigration debate’, where thousands languish indefinitely in immigration detention centres and where spouses face deportation on the grounds that their partners’ incomes are deemed insufficient.
- Paddington continues on general release in cinemas across Britain. In an especially perverse decision by the British Board of Film Classification it’s rated PG, on the ostensible grounds that it includes “dangerous behaviour, mild threat, mild sex references [and] mild bad language”.