(Paddington – a review, with very mild spoilers)
How good does Paddington have to be to avoid parents hiring ruthless Peruvian mercenaries to track the makers through the streets of London and cut them into narrow strips?
Pretty damn good, is how good.
How good is it?
Pretty damn good. With some odd, unlikely caveats of which you should probably be made aware. Let’s do the easy stuff first:
It’s cinematically gorgeous. Occasionally it’s so gorgeous it’s almost painful; Caro-and-Jeunet gorgeous, with unexpected moments of surreality to gloss emotions so that the film’s world becomes its own microcosm. It takes the very best of recent imagemaking – like the visualisation of Sherlock Holmes’s process from both the big and small screen – and reworks it in the rich style of the best children’s illustration. It’s as if Aaron Becker’s fabulous Journey had a lovechild with Scrubs, and then someone threw steampunk and marmalade over the whole thing and added some ground up Tim Burton sprinkles.
Paddington himself is sweet, stern, and innocently destructive on a formidable scale. Given three pieces of celery, a rubber band and a gas oven, this bear could level a major metropolis – mysteriously without actually hurting anyone. If the CGI is a bit palpable at times, it’s still amazing, and the little stowaway brings rejuvenating chaos into the heart of a British family who are spiralling into a life of quiet desperation. He’s easy to love, even when he’s doing appalling things with toothbrushes. Sally Hawkins is magical, Hugh Bonneville is so persuasive that I had to ask Mrs H repeatedly whether I’d gotten dull since we married. She says not, but I may take her motorbiking across Tuscany with some pansexual communist art historians just to make sure.
The movie is clever. The kids’ plot works fine, has moments of high drama (my four year old was seriously alarmed at times; your mileage may vary) and slapstick (with bannisters). Occasionally thrown in are some fairly chancy bits of adult-grade humour, some of which are very funny, a few of which miss the target and clunk to the floor. The parental backstory is heart-wrenching. Nicole Kidman, for whom I have in general a pretty limited tolerance – for all the reasons everyone else seems to love her – is great: chilly, genuinely terrifying, and perhaps somewhat inappropriately smokin’ hot as the film’s elegantly dressed (Fifth Element/medical bondage/Puppini Sisters) villain. Yet another woman who’d be great as Doctor Who. (Yes, I have a list.)
So what’s not to like?
Subtext, baby. The place where it gets weird is the subtext. It’s constant, a bit inevitable and a bit unnecessary, and it flaps around like one of those unmoored ropes in shipwreck flicks that eventually take someone’s arm off.
The subtext is immigration, and it is not incidental. It’s right there, in your face, quite a lot of the time. From the moment the makers of the film decided to kick the action off with a colonial explorer making first contact with a tribe of intelligent bears in the jungle, there was going to be a queasy vibe to the whole thing to the grownups in the audience, and even the basic loveliness of the film doesn’t make it go away. Paddington finds himself in a London that was supposed to be friendly, but which – like Mr Brown – has lost touch with its loving self and become cold and unwelcoming. He’s “not like other people” because he’s a bear from Peru. Peter Capaldi as the nasty neighbour wants to send him back where he belongs – because otherwise there’ll be loads of them, taking over the street. People keep talking about whether Paddington should be handed over to The Authorities, and while the nightmare image that accompanies the word is an orphanage that looks a lot like Arkham Asylum or the Overlook, it could just as easily be an Immigration Removal Centre. The soundtrack points up the parable: everywhere he goes, Paddington is serenaded by a calypso band, and his anthem “London is the Place For Me” was actually performed by Aldwyn Roberts (aka Lord Kitchener) as he disembarked the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948.
So what you have here is a cute kids’ movie about a bear in a duffel coat which for whatever reason has a deliberate but not terrifically nuanced immigration narrative in the background. There’s also a post-colonial whisper in the form of a noble savage inadvertantly revitalising a dimming marriage with an emotional truthfulness we civilised people have forgotten, while the daughter of the original explorer longs to undo her father’s compassionate disgrace – he went native, you see, finding humanity in the Peruvian bear tribe – and fulfil his neglected destructive duty by stuffing Paddington and putting him in a case in the Natural History Museum. The hilarious cross-dressing gag that got so much play in the papers is really not the most serious problem you’re going to come up against, though it’s drab man-in-a-dress humour that really belongs in 1989.
All in all, this is a classic children’s film: a flawed, beautiful thing fraught with the appalling sins of adults concealed behind a hefty façade of candy floss; ridgid with sexuality and lust; steeped in murder, emotional trauma and (implicit) death. In other words, very traditional fare, and exactly the kind of thing you’re supposed to take your family to at Christmas.