Paddington (2014)

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Enter, Following a Bear

— For those of you who love PBS because it shows “better” British television sitcoms, it is probably no surprise that Paddington, the new children’s movie directed by Paul King, based on a series of post-war children’s books by Michael Bond, beloved in Britain and Europe, is a really enjoyable film. King, who directed The Mighty Boosh, a surrealistic sketch comedy TV show for the BBC, set in a broken down zoo, and including a regular character in a gorilla suit, has the perfect credentials for the intelligentsia. King and his colleagues, including comedian and director Richard Ayoade, graduated from Cambridge, that bastion of medieval learning much fretted about by foundational Americanist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Producer David Heyman, who has, with the help of J.K. Rowling, re-built the British tradition of quality via the Harry Potter franchise, after the smug belief that things English are automatically more refined lay in ruins, thanks to the long overdue observation that the films of Merchant and Ivory are far more tedious than entertaining. If one does not accept my provocation, I would ask that we all try to sit down and re-watch 2003’s Le Divorce, a lame-brained allegorical retelling of the First World War (American Kate Hudson and English Naomi Watts play sisters for some reason, fighting over Russian lovers, amidst the arcane French legal system). The film is more excruciatingly awful than even my barbs can indicate; if only the Wes Anderson of The Darjeeling Limited would get the memo.

But, back to the bear: Paddington made $150 million in global release over the 2014 holiday break. The film’s American distributor, The Weinstein Company decided to pull the marmalade eater from our holiday release schedule, fearful that we might not appreciate British refinement in between trampling each other at Walmart. Paddington earned $20M in its first week in the United States, in the middle of January, gunned down at the box office by Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. But, given that Paddington’s production budget was $55M, it is not a bad feat to earn half the budget back in one week during dumping ground season, especially when the film had already cleared over $100 in pure profit elsewhere. The Weinstein Brothers run a shady outfit dedicated to making money off of the idea that American culture is far inferior to things from across the pond. Remember when the excruciatingly awful The English Patient won the 1996 Academy Award for Best Picture over Jerry McGuire? OK, I can see that, especially if you don’t appreciate American popular culture, Cameron Crowe, and conventional Hollywood style. But The English Patient also beat out the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Fargo. Worse, the other two nominees for Best Picture were also British Commonwealth films, Secrets and Lies and Shine, ready to step into the limelight should the intellectual ballot stuffing fail to champion the ever-so-moving charred face of Lord Voldemort.

Paddington expresses the hollowness of British nostalgia at every turn. Like much post-war European culture (Asterix, Suske en Wiske on the Continent), Michael Bond’s books are imperialist to the core. A kindly British explorer, Montgomery Clyde discovers a family of talking bears in “darkest Peru.” In the film, we learn that upon his return to Britain, he was kicked out of the Geographer’s Guild for refusing to shoot and bring back a specimen. In an odd turn, his daughter, Millicent (Nicole Kidman in a hideous blonde wig, doing her best Cruella de Vil impersonation) obsesses over her family’s ruin at the hands of her absurdly anachronistic environmentalist father: she insanely plots to stuff Paddington and place him at the natural history museum, thus restoring her family’s wealth and honor. That is, a woman of 2015 complains about tree-huggers while her 1930s explorer father loved the bears of Peru (in real life, of course, while the British plundered the Third World with wild abandon).

The absolutely most pretentious moment in Paddington occurs when the daughter of the bear’s adoptive family in London attends school. While the disaffected youth sits in class, her English teacher tells us that Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction is “exit, pursued by a bear” from 1610’s A Winter’s Tale. The odd teaching moment allows for a larger reconstruction of the Shakespearean in Paddington’s plot. For example, the bear only begins to acclimate to London after he accidentally thwarts a pickpocket by chasing the man through the streets, thinking he is returning the man’s lost wallet. Autolycus the pickpocket has a prominent place in A Winter’s Tale, and is involved in the play’s transformation from tragedy to comedy, as befits a late Shakespearean Romance.

Paddington’s pretentious engagement with the British literary tradition exacerbates its nostalgic traditionalism. The bear at first loathes London because it is not welcoming and friendly, as the explorer promised his family that it would be. By the film’s end, however, all has been redeemed: Peru is doing fine because the explorer was right when he refused to rape the country’s resources. And, in the present, the explorer’s daughter, wishing to carry on the imperialist project of the natural history museum, is easily thwarted, in a scene that oddly converts her into the wicked witch from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Compare Paddington to a film from which it steals repeatedly, Pixar’s Up (2009), made far away from London in that most barbarous of locations, on the eastern shores of the San Francisco Bay in California. In the American film, after a heartbreaking time compression sequence in which Carl Fredricksen struggles his entire life with his beloved wife, Ellie, the widower decides to travel to South America to live the adventure about which they had only dreamed. As a child, Carl (voiced by the quintessentially grumpy American, Ed Asner) would sit in front of the newsreels at the movie theater, mesmerized by the travelogues of Charles Muntz (played by the British Commonwealth star, Christopher Plummer, a Canadian). Paddington begins exactly the way Up does, with a parody of a black-and-white newsreel indicating the discovery of a lost Shangri-la in South America, a bear tree house amidst an orange grove in Peru in the former, Paradise Falls in the latter.

Yet, while Paddington attempts to paper over the legacy of imperialism, Up shoots for its jugular. When Carl finally gets to South America, he finds Muntz, who was also disgraced by his fellow scientists, but for purportedly fabricating the skeleton of a mythical bird. Muntz goes insane in the jungle, spending his life searching for proof of the bird’s existence. When Carl arrives, he quickly befriends the bird, Kevin. When Muntz sees the bird, he stops at nothing to capture it. When Muntz’ insanity threatens Carl’s young charge, Russell, a Wilderness Explorer who has stowed away during the balloon-propelled flight southward, Carl fights to Muntz to the death, in order to preserve both the South American wildlife, and the young boy.

Thus, the purportedly crass American film, Up, in the light of day, is the far more defensible one from the standards of the ethics of representation. Up does not hide from the barbarity of the colonialist project, nor from the fact that such abuses continue to this day. We would do well to not be charmed by the abilities of clever British artists to reconstruct the Shakespearean in our children’s entertainment, especially if that reaction gets in the way of seeing the brilliance of Hollywood art, just because it is American. Sometimes the bear pursues us, but sometimes, if we know what we are looking for, we can pursue the bear.

– Walter Metz