I came out of Paddington 2 with a big smile on my face, a feeling I didn’t anticipate. It feels weird to enjoy a movie about a weird CGI bear — a sequel to a movie about a weird CGI bear, no less — but it’s easier to understand if you know that Paddington 2 isn’t good because it’s about a weird CGI bear, but good in spite of the fact that it’s about a weird CGI bear. Which is to say, it’s not really about the bear.
We do get a glimpse of what it might have looked like if it had been. There are a few stray scenes early on in Paddington 2 that are more in line with my expectations, scenes that offered an alternate-universe view of what this movie might have been had its makers not realized that the weird CGI bear wasn’t itself the draw, but merely its peculiar avatar.
Paddington, a small, near-sighted bear with funny hat, living in London with a nice upper-middle-class family, has taken a job at the local barbershop to try to earn enough money to buy his auntie (also a poorly sighted bear, but who lives in a forest) a pop-up book about London. He gets into some bother with an older gentleman demanding a haircut (Paddington is only supposed to sweep up, but Giuseppe the barber has stepped out and the man is insistent) that leads to a series of sight gags, with Paddington fiddling with assorted barber-y equipment (in Paddington, the clippers vibrate you!), culminating with Paddington licking marmalade off the gentleman’s newly shorn scalp. Har har.
The movie has a few of these slapstick set pieces, whose guiding principle seems to be “Bears can’t do people things!” Paddington as an ursine CGI version of the Three Stooges, basically. Occasionally they contain a mild gross-out element — earwax on a coin, a toothbrush up the nose, marmalade on a scalp, etc. — which someone probably thought they needed in order to keep the kiddies’ attention. (It’s easier to tell if an audience is still paying attention if they’re yelling “Ewww!”) Gross-out poo gags don’t seem befitting a dapper bear, whose entire character is meant to symbolize civility and restraint, but I digress.
The slapstick bits range from mildly dull to mildly tolerable (with the gross-out bits being slightly degrading to the source material), for the simple reason that there’s nothing magical about CGI slapstick. There’s no element of surprise or spontaneity, no human choreography or acrobatics to appreciate. It’s all literally drawn up ahead of time. It feels like an algorithm’s book report on all the things it machine-learned.
Nonetheless, a collection of these types of scenes is about what we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies. New beloved character, same half-assed pandering, and always with at least one scene where a cartoon character shakes their furry CGI butt at the camera. (Is cartoon butt-shaking little kid porn or does Hollywood just think it is?) The appeal to the investor is that you can make virtually the same movie over and over, but utilize an existing property’s name recognition to capture a built-in audience. Madagascar 7: Paddington Takes London!
Thankfully, Paddington 2 only seems like that on the surface. While it does contain some of those elements (including one butt-shaking scene, that must’ve been in the contract), they feel like vestigial throwaways, rather than the raison d’etre.
The makers of Paddington 2 (director Paul King, previously of The Mighty Boosh, and his co-writer Simon Farnaby) seem to understand that Paddington the bear is merely a symbol. He’s not an adorable character people love because of his hijinks so much as an avatar of abiding Britishness. As an American, I can’t claim to recognize every element of the popular British mythos, but even when I can’t entirely grasp them I can still sense them suffusing Paddington‘s every frame. (What’s the name of that hat Paddington wears? All I know is that it’s the same one UFC fighter Brad “One Punch” Pickett wore after fights, as some kind of dog whistle paean to Englishness.)
Above all, Paddington is polite and restrained, a model of civility. He knows everyone in the suburb where he lives, from the forgetful Dr. Jafri, to the lovelorn newstand proprietress (and parrot owner) Miss Kitts, to the garbageman Mr. Barnes, who knows the fastest way to get anywhere in the city. They all greet each other warmly every morning, and make up a rainbow of different skin colors and accents — it’s a clear but light-handed endorsement of a multicultural Britain. Which is also underscored by the fact that no one makes a big deal about Paddington being a bear. Oh him? That’s just Paddington, the hat-wearing bear. Loves his marmalade, I hear.
As Paddington himself puts it, “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
England is a nation of shopkeepers, so the saying goes, but between Paddington and The Great British Bake Off, which celebrates exactly the same kind of upright, tweedy eccentricity, British people these days seem to think of themselves as a nation of retired professors, with a reserved wisdom, a love of life’s simple pleasures (tea, marmalade), and a collection of delightfully dorky hobbies. Naturally, it follows that some of Paddington’s closest friends are his adopted father, Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville), a studiously dowdy insurance salesman, and Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), the oddball antique shop owner. (Honestly, Paddington 2 may have a better ensemble cast than The Post.)
It’s a world where responsible folks work just hard enough to indulge their goofy, dorky hobbies and have pleasant chats with their goofy, dorky friends over delightful sweets. Paddington is, above all, dedicated to celebrating these myths of abiding Britishness, from civility and restraint to an inexplicable love of riding old-timey trains. In one subplot, Paddington’s human brother, Jonathan Brown (Samuel Joslin) has reinvented himself as a “cool kid,” whose coolness manifests in Kanye shades, sneakers, and pretending not to like steam trains (another element of Britishness seems to be not really understanding what’s cool). Then later, in a climactic moment, he declares “My name is Jonathan Brown, and I love steam trains!” owning his true, precociously dowdy old-man nature like some English version of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Paddington 2 tends to find its most effective humor in cleverly deployed use of precise vocabulary, such as when Paddington’s human sister, Judy (Madeleine Harris) tells her erstwhile boyfriend over the phone, “I’m dumped? Actually, I think you’ll find you’re dumped, Tony,” or when the gentleman from the barbershop gets Prosecco dumped on him and exclaims “I’ve been spilled upon by chilled liquid!” (It’s as much about the sharp enunciating as the words themselves.)
The plot, such as it is, concerns Paddington’s attempt to buy the aforementioned book for his auntie. But it turns out a washed-up actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, in, no kidding, his best role), also has designs on the book, and ends up framing Paddington for its burglary. This leads to a wonderful prison subplot that contains pretty much everything that makes Paddington 2 so delightful.
In prison, surrounded by menacing (but still eccentric) thugs, Paddington makes an unlikely friend in the grouchy prison cook, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). His personal motto? “I don’t do nothin’ for nobody for nothin’.” It’s Paddington’s philosophy, however, that eventually wins out: “My auntie told me that if you look for the best in people, oftentimes you’ll find it.”
Soon he’s turned the prison into a bake shop, turning the Paddington/Great British Bake Off parallels from tonal to overt, and the once-mean prisoners have been transformed into neighborly colleagues through simple politeness and tasty foods. The implication is clear: even the worst environment can be made livable with enough politeness and respect; even a dreary island with crappy weather and a loose grasp of what’s cool can become lovely with enough pleasant people and charmingly weird food. And, of course, the climax of the film takes place on an old-timey train.
It is, as intended, charming and quaint. Of course, you could find a thousand historical examples that make Britain’s commodified civility seem hypocritical at best (even the word “civil” itself is somewhat loaded). But Paddington 2 isn’t meant to justify Empire. It’s more like the subjects of it reclaiming the rhetoric. Even if it started out as a bullshit deflection, there’s something both refreshing and true to the idea that being polite to each other makes a crappy a world a little nicer.