I missed the Paddington train the first time. I had read the books as a kid, but there was something about how quaint and British the films sounded that made me dismiss them out of hand. I’m of the opinion that you can never be too old for a movie, and by the time you read this I’ll have already seen Pixar’s new Turning Red, but for some reason Paddington slipped the net. It’s only because I’m going to see Paddington 2 writer Simon Farnaby’s latest film, The Phantom of the Open, next week that I’ve bothered to watch it. What I found in Paddington 2 was one of the toughest anti-cop movies I’ve come across in quite some time.
Most children’s films are made with some consideration for parents or guardians in mind – an understanding that when children go to see these films in theaters, they drag their dear old grandfather along for the ride. Because of this, they often have in-jokes and references that will go over kids’ heads, as well as storylines and themes that resonate with all of us. That’s why you can never really outgrow a movie, only see it in a new light. Of course, when you write a lot about films, you often feel the need to over-intellectualize things. Explaining that the reason you like hyper-violent movies isn’t just because you like blood, guts, and excitement, but because Gangster #3 gets his intestines ripped out is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of tax system. Sometimes it’s only fair to say you like things because they’re cool. And it’s okay to like kids’ movies just because they’re cool. But there’s more with Paddington 2.
Paddington’s first film is just nice. Sure, there are themes about family, togetherness, and acceptance, but these are all pretty general family movie ideas. The second film begins similarly, with a series of sets like Paddington working in a barbershop or trying to wash windows. However, everything takes a dark turn when Paddington is arrested. Wrongly convicted of stealing an ancient book, Paddington is in the dock and we are told explicitly that he will be fined as long as he has a fair judge. Only the judge was involved in an incident at the hairdresser’s, so Paddington gets ten years. It’s silly, but it brings out a salient point: sometimes you get sent to jail because the system, or the people who work in it, don’t like you. In Paddington’s case, it’s a very fanciful dislike because of a marmalade incident at a hairdresser. In real life, it’s because of your skin color, because of your religion or because you’re poor.
The film redoubles on this point. Mr. Curry, an underage villain, is a self-proclaimed community watch leader who acts as a street police force. He takes an instant dislike of Paddington and is intensely suspicious of him. This time there is no slight misunderstanding at the heart of Mr. Curry’s ill will. He just doesn’t like Paddington, especially because he’s a bear. He is different. He is stranger. It will disrupt the neighborhood and lead to more bears until people like Mr. Curry are a minority. Mr. Curry wants Paddington back where he came from. The way the film positions Paddington as an immigrant and how that shapes his interactions with representations of the law is very frank and direct.
Then there is the prison itself. Initially, the prisoners are pretty thugs. Tom Davis plays a huge, hulking menace who threatens to bury Paddington in the yard, and Brendon Gleeson plays beefy chef Knuckles (spelled on his own knuckles as Nuckel’s) who serves up endless plates of thin, grainy oatmeal. When Paddington suggests something different, Knuckles resorts to blunt threats as well, until a taste of Paddington’s marmalade sandwich converts him. Cue cute kitchen montage, and suddenly all the prisoners are being served marmalade sandwiches. It’s kind of trivial, that Knuckles only acts so mean because he’s afraid of what people might think of him, that an entire cell block of prisoners could be redeemed by a single act of kindness, but it says something bigger. Our justice system is cruel and seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate. With less contempt for those who are part of it, the justice system could be much more efficient.
It’s not just seeing the innards of a gangster and convincing myself that it’s a statement about tax law. When the warden reads a bedtime story – something brought into the prison apparently on the advice of Paddington – we don’t hear all but one line: “it turns out the monster was no such monster”. It’s very clearly a statement about how the UK views foreigners and criminals, and has only become more relevant in the five years since the release of Paddington 2.
We see that mutual kindness too. When the prisoners escape, they make it out unscathed – until they discover that Paddington is in danger. Then, at the sacrifice of their personal freedoms, they return to help their friend. It’s not just that Paddington has to give us a happy ending, but it turns out the criminals were nice guys all along. It’s not as naive as one might think. In neither film is the villain redeemed – this is not a film that is afraid to see the bad in people, even though Paddington himself is always looking for the good.
Paddington 2 doesn’t quite say ACAB – Paddington looks for hope and thinks there are good cops out there. But he’s acutely aware that the system itself is broken, and it takes more than a good bear’s love to fix it. It’s strange that, for a children’s film that seems to have entered the zeitgeist, nobody seems to have spoken about these extremely relevant themes. Paddington 2 might be the most relevant British film of the Brexit era. Maybe I just missed it – I missed the Paddington wave, after all.
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