“We all want to help one another. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery.” Paddington Bear’s dear Aunt Lucie could have said this. She believes that people want good from each other, and what’s more, that they’ll find it if they look. Paddington (and director Paul King, I suspect) get that from her. But she didn’t say it: Charlie Chaplin did. Paddington 2 salutes the Tramp in symbols at one point, when the chubby bear slides up by his smooshed belly fur through the clock gears that enclosed the Tramp in Modern Times. He even hastily wipes off a grease-paint mustache for anyone who didn’t get the gist (though if they didn’t get it already, they may think it was a random Hitler reference). The entire picture is a coming-home letter to the silent comics, in the way action and comedy become inseparable, in how it understands that the stillness of an innocent reaction is funnier than the outrage of a sarcastic one. The irreverent new frat-party Peter Rabbit film could not have come into the world at a worse time: with the freshly laundered colors of a boundless imagination, the sincere Paddington 2 is as much good as I’ve seen from us in more than a few bear years.
“From deepest, darkest Peru,” the well-mannered bear comes to London, arriving at Paddington Station, looking for a family. The first Paddington was about the construction of this situation comedy, the mechanism of the “bear in the big city” plot. The sequel is better because it has no obligations: it lets the elements work their own magic. Paddington (impersonated by Ben Whishaw) is so at home in Waverly, London that people act like a bear in a rain hat and overcoat is nothing to be surprised about. His world’s ability to accept him, rather than scream in surprise and crash cars when he talks to them for the first time, is what makes Paddington 2 inviting compared to Christopher Robin, though they began with similar intentions.
Paddington makes “sticky situation” literal with that jar of orange marmalade he carries in his coat pocket. But if he gets into antics, they’re all well-meaning; you get the sense that he doesn’t even realize they are antics. He “good mornings” everyone he meets, helps out when he can, and especially when he can’t, totally misses the function of sarcasm, and tips his hat at the perfect times. No one in the world, on or off-camera, not even the villain, looks down on Paddington. It’s a London that might not ever exist that he trots around in on his bear paws, one where people might say they’re “tickled the deepest shade of shrimp” and not raise any suspicions. The well-mannered frivolity, to use Professor McGonagall’s phrase, is ticklish, to say the least.
The bromide that usually corrodes this kind of film is the idea that overreaction is the only comedy children understand. The resulting antics usually involve screaming, slow motion, or slow-motion screaming. Paddington 2 crosses this threshold without Paddington’s wariness: it knows exactly how to balance verbal and physical comedy, how to freshen it in its predictable medium, and how to make jokes cross generations. For instance, Paddington, to afford enough money for Aunt Lucie’s birthday present (she’s turning 100 in bear years and it must be perfect), takes up a job as a window washer. In the process of doing so, following a wonderful skit with Paddington on a rope pulley tied to his soap bucket, the bear discovers that he, that is, his big furry body, is the best possible squeegee to get the job done right. Paws, bum, and belly slide across the sudsy windows, the in-universe jazz band starts grooving, and Paddington is finally good at a job just because he’s fuzzy and plump and creative with it.
Paddington sliding his bear bum along a soapy window is funny without being classified as twerking – it isn’t aware of itself. Even Paddington seems unaware that there’s any reason not to clean a window this way (why would there be, when one has a perfectly soap-absorbent bum to use?). This scene doesn’t ask you to be pleased with it – it is content with contentment. Sony Animation’s shysters would have preferred this character to be sassy in proportion to the sweetness of his upbringing. It’s a shame that Heyday Films didn’t think of the obvious comedy gold: Paddington turning around on his sill and tossing bread slices to birds like a banker at a strip club to a Taylor Swift song, or surprising everyone by dub-stepping at a London club like a cool kid, or force-feeding someone something they’re allergic to until they go into anaphylactic shock.
At the risk of offending Aunt Lucie, who would not speak so ill of a fellow furry animal movie in public, I won’t harp on Peter Rabbit anymore. I will try to dispel the image of Flopsy and Cottontail in sexy crop-tops drunkenly twerking in their living room and replace it with Paddington washing windows.
You see, I used to be like Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), who believed that in the real world, the world of Peter Rabbit films, “a good-mannered bear might get trampled.” But since Paul King and Heyday Films believed that a bear might not, if he was good-mannered enough, they made and released Paddington 2 not only without the vulgar posture of their competition but even without presenting their sincerity as irony. Irony is usually the way that even well-meaning films feel the need to make themselves easier to accept for people who can’t appreciate them, in the way that dogs can’t swallow pills until you wrap them in cheese. Paddington 2 contains none.
When Paddington goes to prison for theft, it’s not a frustrating plot device built on misinformation. No one believes he stole anything, though the evidence proves them wrong, and they never need convincing to re-accept Paddington into their hearts. Even on the inside, Paddington’s prison sentence is a wonderland of Chaplin-esque setups: getting bullied by the gigantic soft-on-the-inside chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), teaching weathered criminals which fork is for cake, and escaping by clock-tower and hot air balloon to clear his name. We’re too full of wonderment to make it back around to irony, and I don’t know who would miss it. In this film, not even Paddington's butt is the butt of a joke. When the bear heckles a vain man without meaning to, we find it easy to laugh at the man's vanity, which reminds us of our own, and never at Paddington, who reminds us awfully frequently of how we wish we could be.
Crisp action sequences were not a requirement for adapting Michael Bond’s can-do bear, to be chased by train and streetcar, on dog-back and in the Thames. But director Paul King is so conscientious of space that his action is more exciting than many films who call it their best feature. The train chase at the end is like a silent film, in the way Paddington sneaks up on the bad guy (Hugh Grant) by fastening candy apples to his paws and walking across the ceiling, and escaping to the adjacent train with a tiny crank ladder that extends one slat at a time and bows over the gap, jostling its pudgy little bear-end over the side. It’s worthy of Buster Keaton, who knew as well as King that our eyes have to see all of something to believe in it. For a set piece like this to be funny, you have to follow it. King never lets us go.
The supporting cast supports the little bear every minute: Sally Hawkins soars as the pert Mary Brown, Paddington’s adoptive mother with swimming ambitions and a most sarcastic whisper. Bonneville knows how much Mr. Brown needs to hide his misgivings about the world around him behind his pride in his little part of it: he means well enough that we can forgive him for not acting on the belief that the world is better than he thinks it is. Jim Broadbent gracefully enters and exits as the nebulous antique store owner. Hugh Grant plays a self-excusing parody of his own career foibles, but one that a lot of grinning and timing makes more acceptable than an attempt to seriously outlast them. And Gleeson’s performance is in the greatest traditions of bountiful big men on-screen, hearkening to the Mack Sennett studio days, when Buster could have found a sparring partner in rowdy Roscoe Arbuckle – the bear and the locomotive in one pair of pants. Everyone in Paddington 2 keeps moving. It doesn’t stop until it’s good and ready.
And along the way, London itself is like a pop-up book of visual wonder. When Paddington and his convict friends escape from prison, the view shifts and becomes Wes Anderson-esque, in two dimensions, as though the bear is crawling through a doll’s house, dodging the view of silly guards in a stage show. When he opens the literal pop-up book, the camera soars into it and plants Paddington and his dear Aunt down among the cardboard coast and pop-up people. When he misses the jungle, his jail-cell sprouts foliage for him. There are no “dreams” in Paddington 2: these sequences continue in the real time of the film, as do the entrances of the random canonical jazz band that occasionally takes up Dario Marianelli’s lively score. Imagination is the film’s bread and marmalade. It lives on it, unflinchingly, never doubting the kind of well-mannered dreams it hopes to inspire with sequence on sequence of tactful whimsy. It remains confident that we will accept them as such sequences must be – with a tip of the hat.
With the kid’s films I’ve seen released over the last few years – Norm of the North, Minions, The Emoji Movie, Peter Rabbit – I am still rather like Mr. Brown in that I don’t fully understand how Paddington 2 can exist, untrampled, in those circumstances. It was not made but confected, like an icing rose, by people who take no pleasure from pain, who want only good from each other. Aunt Lucie would be so proud, just that they looked for such goodness. And anyone who sees this film will walk away humming a song whose tune they might have forgotten, but whose message is clear as crystal, and as sparkling: that even today a little bear can still find it.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Heyday Films/StudioCanal
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, August 21, 2018