It was the morning after the busy Black Friday weekend at work, and, predictably, I slept in. The rain was pouring down thick and fast and Glasgow was a gloomy vat of grey. There was a need for something warm and enchanting in this mist that overshadowed Christmas.
Every year, my Mum, brother and I try to find something to visit – it’s become a kind of tradition. An acoustic gig, a play or a film, usually. In past year’s, we’ve seen the likes of Pearl and the Puppets, Great Expectations; a long time ago, it would be Maybole Bazaar or the Carrick Christmas Show. Sometimes it’s true that the older you get, the better things are. There was a year when I was supposed to go see Frightened Rabbit at The Arches with some friends, but a heavy snowdrift cancelled out all the trains and so I had to content myself with a night at home studying Higher Sociology…
Anyway, this year I found myself on the train to Edinburgh on Sunday morning. Since the weather was a gloomy storm of wind and rain, we decided to go to the cinema. I always like the thrill of going to a cinema I haven’t been before – even if it’s got the same pick and mix, popcorn machine and seats, there’s still something exciting about navigating the screen doors and the dark staircases. We went to the VUE cinema. Mum was keen on going to see Paddington. I was pretty sceptical; I mean, I’m not too keen on animated films, and I agreed with my brother that it might end up being a bit…childish. Probably like going to see Frozen, although I wouldn’t dare to be so controversial as to comment on that film, and anyway I haven’t seen it. Certainly, when we sat down to watch the adverts, there were a lot of commercials for toys and cereal and films that come with a ‘U’ certificate. A baby behind us intermittently crying. We exchanged Sibling Glances. What was this going to be?
I suppose in my mind I’ve always lumped Paddington in with Winnie the Pooh, The Wind and the Willows, Watership Down and Beatrix Potter: fuzzy, anthropomorphic children’s tales which hold prime place in the history of children’s literature. Yet all these tales tend to have a hidden dark side: like all traditional fairytales, their simple stories of adventure are interwoven with commentaries on the likes of family, love, violence and perhaps even racism. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Paddington, but as I waited for the adverts to roll out, I was imagining that perhaps this would be more than just a plain old children’s film. Maybe it would reach the stature of one of the only children’s films I like, the (I think) highly symbolic Bug’s Life.
Paddington begins in the midst of ‘darkest Peru’, recounting a colonial tale whereby an English explorer named Montgomery Clyde makes friends with two bears and tells them upon his return to England that they will always be welcome in London if they ever visit Britain. The whole film holds a self-conscious ironic mockery of British colonialism, like some postmodern update of Conrad. Imperial knowledge is held by the ‘Geographical Society’ who cruelly banish Clyde for his benevolent approach to the ‘natives’.
Soon after, we witness fantastical elements of the bears’ lives as they live alongside their nephew in the wilds of darkest Peru. These lives are remarkably sophisticated, featuring an intriguing marmalade-making machine and a radio crackling with the sharp tones of BBC R.P. informing distant listeners about life back home on the streets of London. There are also some very nice hats. The simple harmony of the forest is disrupted one day by a violent earthquake, which leaves the female bear Lucy effectively a widow as the other bear Pastuzo disappears. Lucy sends her poor bereft nephew away to London to seek adventure and fortune by sneaking him onto a ship, and retires peacefully to a retirement home for bears.
After this, the film follows a somewhat bizarre but delightfully heartwarming immigrant narrative. The young bear finds himself alienated in a strange city, acquires himself a ‘British’ name (Paddington, after the train station he arrives at), and then a suitably quirky and very English family to adopt him. The Browns (with Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as the dad and Made in Dagenham’s Sally Hawkins as the mum) embody that kind of slightly dysfunctional, messy and a bit bizarre middle-class family that holds mythological status at the heart of our culture. Yes, there is the threat of stereotype, but the film carries off these qualities generally well as they mould perfectly into warm, fairytale figures that chime in various ways with cultural caricatures without becoming too flat or prescriptive. The stern, paranoid father and the liberal, empathetic mother; the boy obsessed with building things; the girl choked on embarrassment and fear of seeming ‘weird’ to her friends. The Scottish and slightly alcoholic housekeeper, Mrs Bird, who can predict things with her knees and saves the day towards the end of the film by distracting a security guard with copious shots of whisky.
We might compare this play on well-loved family archetypes it to the likes of TV comedies My Family or Outnumbered, which features semi-improvised scripts depicting the chaos of modern family life. The overly-inquisitive little sister Karen, the perpetually-stressed mum, the wearied father, the embodied chaos of Ben, the youngest brother, the sulky teenager. What makes Paddington shine above any TV drama is the simple humour of its script and the cinematic magic of its costumes: Nicole Kidman’s sharp heels and trench as she stars as the villainous taxidermist who seeks to capture and stuff our beloved bear for the Museum of Natural History, Sally Hawkin’s outfits (all marvellous colour-clashing, woolly hats and embroidered cardigans), and that iconic blue duffle coat and red hat that Paddington wears himself. Let’s hope sales of said duffle coat go up in the aftermath of this film because I’m more than happy to see it everyday, especially in that lovely cobalt colour that Paddington sports so well:
Then there’s the magic of the house itself, which features a giant spiral staircase and walls painted with a Japanese cherry blossom tree, the blossoms of which bloom or fade beautifully according to the emotional tone of the story.
As Paddington adjusts himself to (human) family life, the audience goes through scenes of low-level cognitive estrangement, as Paddington explores everyday human life and tries to make sense of it, with amusing consequences: flooding the bathroom, using a toothbrush as an ear-cleaning cotton-bud, mastering how to use the escalators at the tube station. As I said at the beginning, I’m not generally a great fan of animated films, but Paddington carries off its loveable animal protagonist flawlessly, down to the details of individual water droplets shaking off each strand of his fur. Originally, Colin Firth was set to play the voiceover for Paddington, but he stepped down after worrying that his voice didn’t sound quite ‘open’ enough for the young bear. Instead, Ben Whishaw got the part and the sweet dulcet tones that so charmed us in his portrayal of Romantic poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star are here perfect for the innocent wide-eyed charisma of Paddington. It’s a remarkably technical process; Whishaw had to wear a kind of helmet so that the animated Paddington bear could match the facial expressions and head movements of his kindred (human) spirit.
London is a dream in this film. From the grand corridors of the museum to the polished floors of Paddington Station (I imagine a much-needed plug for Network Rail…) and the snowy streets, it provides a romantic backdrop to Paddington’s adventures that makes us fall in love with the old city all over again. Sometimes I get very sick of London, especially the way it always flickers through media as this glassy corporate giant full of rich people with perfect lives (I’m thinking of the sweeping shots that open The Apprentice or basically every shot in Made in Chelsea that isn’t an awkward closeup of someone’s glakit face). The London of Paddington is a city of nostalgia, drenched in snow and old antique shops and red telephone boxes and a Dickensian wallet thief. Peter Capaldi playing an archetypal nosy old neighbour with a cockney accent and Doctor Who scarf. The family portrayed at the heart of the film are at once old-fashioned (the boring, distant father that perhaps echoes the banker father of Mary Poppins?) but deal with relatively modern issues: the presence of technology, the moodiness of teenagers. It’s this blend of the nostalgic and contemporary that really adds magic back to London itself, that spins a fairytale of visual beauty and enough narrative suspense to keep you hooked to the end (there is the encroaching threat of Kidman’s cold cyborg of a villain coming to kill and stuff our beloved protagonist).
Aside from the lovely visuals and fairytale storyline of good vs. evil, there’s the narrative of the Other which I already touched upon. Paddington experiences both alienation and welcome, and simultaneously the audience goes through the motions of heartbreak and compassion. Initially, he finds himself spurned by Mr Brown for his clumsy inability to fit into the household without making a mess of everything. In the cold rain he wanders the streets, and finds shelter with one of the Queen’s Guards who kindly offers him an emergency sandwich that he has stuffed under his enormous hat. Paddington is of course perfect for Christmas time: there is the message of family love, compassion and understanding, but also that simple narrative of sharing food that means so much in the shared gluttony of the festive season. There’s a reason we buy a tin of Roses or Heroes or Quality Street and it’s not just because it offers choice, but also because it’s a shared pleasure. Much like the film itself (I recommend everyone sees it on the big screen where the glorious visuals can really come to life).
You can look to the likes of Derrida or Donna Harraway to academically unpick the importance of understanding animality and other species for recognising the animal in us. By the end of the film, we realise that species shouldn’t divide us or cause fear or hatred or hierarchy. It’s wrong to treat another being as an instrumental object: something to be prized and displayed and stuffed. Go to Peter Singer for some philosophy too; I recommend ‘All Animals Are Equal’ (1974). It’s wrong to treat the Other with anything less than the respect you’d give to your own ‘species’. If bears and humans can become family, then can’t we all as humans get along in the turbulent times of the terrorism and threat and anti-immigration rhetoric of the 21st century?
What draws the immigrant narrative out from this Every(bear’s)man’s tale of immigration is the interspersed classic calypso songs which a band play throughout the action. Michael Bond’s children’s books were written, as Tim Masters (BBC 2014) points out, around the time when a new immigrant community were settling in Notting Hill – the place where Paddington himself finds a home. The songs are all positive and cheery, telling a story of endurance in the face of hardship and rippling with a fresh, hopeful spirit. The kind we need for 2015. By invoking the positive narrative of the Caribbean settlers in the mid-twentieth century (who came to help rebuild post-war Britain), the film implicitly critiques our contemporary societal stance on immigration. All the fear-mongering rhetoric that gets whipped up by the likes of UKIP is exploded in this heart-warming tale of love and discovery and acceptance of difference. It’s a classic tale of the journey of the Outsider that could be applied to anyone who has had the experience of settling into a new community as some kind of racial/ethnic/sexual/physical Other. And perhaps this, more than anything else, is the enduring magic of Paddington. So I’m glad I went to see it.
(On a side note, the only thing I was sceptical about was the heroic pigeons who essentially save Paddington at the film’s climax – not to put to fine a point on spoilers – I can’t see pigeons ever acting so benevolently. But then maybe that’s a terrible species bias that I should work on myself).
Masters, Tim, 2014. BBC News Online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-30196290
Pauli, Michelle, 2014. Interview with Michael Bond. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/michael-bond-author-paddington-bear-interview-books-television-film