January is what is known as a “dump month” for the film industry – domestic audiences are smaller than the rest of the year (perhaps due to a combination of weather and holiday fatigue) and so, this is when studios tend to release films with less prominent stars, movies that didn’t perform well with test audiences, or movies that cannot be easily marketed to broader audiences.
Paddington, based on the popular children's book series about a well-mannered bear who emigrated from Darkest Peru to London, and moves in with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, was released in the United States in January of 2014. At first glance, I can understand why this film would have been relegated to the “dump” category: it’s a live-action animated comedy based on a talking bear, first introduced in 1958, starring a number of British character actors who are not necessarily big names in the United States. But I refuse to believe that this film tested poorly with sample audiences. Paddington is one of the most charming films I have seen in my life; it has a gentle, kind-hearted sensibility, and a screenplay written with enough wit that adults would easily find the story as compelling as children would.
Perhaps this is the time for me to admit that at this point in my life I am almost incapable of revisiting the children’s literature that I loved when I was a child myself. This isn’t because I find children’s books childish – it’s because there’s something about the vulnerability of the characters, and the earnestness within the lessons told in these stories that absolutely wrecks me now that I’m in my mid-30s and have actually experienced a few lifetimes since I first read them. Ferdinand the Bull? Completely relatable for anyone who refuses to conform to societal expectations, experiences ridicule for it, but is determined to be true to themselves. Corduroy? For anyone who has wanted to be accepted but is damaged and tries their hardest to fix themselves, this story is deeply resonant. The Velveteen Rabbit? Forget it. Just thinking about the famous passage where the Skin Horse explains to the Rabbit how true love can make you real makes me bawl.
The original Paddington stories, at their core, are about what constitutes a home, and how one defines family. The first Paddington film is roughly based on: A Bear Called Paddington, the first book in what became a more-than-20-book series (the final book was published in 2018, shortly after creator/author Michael Bond’s death). Paddington, as voiced by Ben Whishaw, (perhaps best known to American audiences as Q in the Daniel Craig James Bond films) is sent to London by his Aunt Lucy (voiced by incoming Queen Elizabeth II in Season 5 of The Crown, Imelda Staunton) when she is forced to move into a “Home for Retired Bears” in Darkest Peru. She and her late husband, Pastuzo, were discovered many years ago by a British geographer named Montgomery Clyde, who was originally going to capture them as samples for the Natural History Museum but instead, was surprised to learn that this species of bear was intelligent and empathetic. After bonding with them, teaching them English, and learning of their deep love of marmalade, Clyde left them his explorer’s hat as a gift, and told them that they would always be welcome in London should they want to visit. Lucy, with this invitation in mind, sends Paddington to London as a stowaway on a lifeboat, along with a suitcase of marmalade, Clyde’s hat, and a note around his neck saying: “Please Look After This Bear.” Paddington ends up at Paddington Station in London (fittingly) and runs into the Brown family, who agree to take him in temporarily.
The father, Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville, undoubtedly best known to American audiences as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in the PBS mega-hit Downton Abbey) is a risk analyst by profession, and he fears the potential safety consequences of having a bear in their home, but Paddington, despite being a bit clumsy, and often leaving a pile of devastation in his wake, (he destroys the Browns’ bathroom by flooding the tub within 15 minutes of arriving to Windsor Gardens) easily wins over Henry’s wife Mary (Sally Hawkins), their two children Judy and Jonathan (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin), and their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (the sublime Julie Walters). Henry is adamant that Paddington needs to find a permanent home elsewhere, and so Mary goes with Paddington to the local antique shop to trace the background of his hat. They learn about Montgomery Clyde and Paddington sets about trying to see if he can find any members of Clyde’s family who might be willing to take him in for good.
There is a villain in this story: Millicent Clyde, the late Clyde’s taxidermist daughter, who has been bitter for most of her life at her father’s failure to bring the Peruvian bears back as samples for the Natural History Museum, thus thwarting their family from fame and fortune. Millicent is played with icy style by Nicole Kidman, and once she learns that a Peruvian bear has been roaming around London looking for a home, she devises a plan to capture Paddington, and turn him into a museum sample, thus salvaging her father’s legacy. She fails, of course, because this is a feel-good children’s movie, and this plotline feels fairly low-stakes due to the flimsiness of Millicent’s characterization (despite Kidman clearly enjoying the hell out of playing the part).
The aspect of the first Paddington movie that really feels high-stakes is whether the Browns – especially risk-averse Henry – will decide if they are willing to let Paddington stay with them and become a part of their family. At one point, the Brown children decide they need to give Paddington a proper bath and dress him up nicely in order to make a good impression on their father, which threatened to unleash the part of my psyche that cannot handle revisiting children’s literature – the moment when Mrs. Bird slips Henry’s old blue duffle coat onto Paddington, transforming him into the spitting image of all of the iconic illustrations from the books, (not to mention all of the iconic stuffed animal renditions of Paddington). I began to feel a lump form in my throat. When Henry sees Paddington in the coat, he visibly softens, and I was ready to cry. And of course, during the film’s climax, when the Browns learn that Millicent has kidnapped Paddington and intends to kill and stuff him, they embark on an epic plot to rescue him by breaking into the Museum, because they realize that he has indeed become a part of their family… I was full-on weeping. But in a good way. In the end, Millicent is sentenced to clean up animal scat at the petting zoo that her father opened upon his return from Peru, all those many years ago as community service, and Paddington writes a letter to Aunt Lucy telling her that he is happy and has found a home – living with the Browns, who love him dearly and provide him with as many marmalade sandwiches as he wants.
How could anyone not adore this movie? Why on earth would any sane film distribution company drop this charming story ignominiously in the hinterlands of January?
And furthermore – after the immense success and critical acclaim of Paddington, what sane film distribution company would subsequently drop Paddington 2 also in the hinterlands of January? Especially considering that Paddington 2 is one of the best movie sequels I have ever seen in my years on earth. It’s better than the first film.
Paddington 2 was released in the United States on January 12, 2018, and depicts Paddington’s life in Windsor Gardens after having been settled in as a member of the Brown family (the entire original cast returned for the sequel) for several years. Paddington is a popular figure in the neighborhood due to his friendliness, offering emotional support to several people in the community - from a neighbor who frequently locks himself out in the morning leaving for work (Paddington reminds him daily to retrieve his keys before the door shuts behind him), to the lonely woman who runs the newspaper stall (Paddington sets her up in a meet-cute with a cranky neighbor and they start dating), to helping a garbageman who is studying to be a black cab driver (yes, one must take a test to become a cabbie in London; according to one of my boyfriend’s best friends who is a London cab driver, the test is very, very difficult).
Paddington wants to buy a pop-up book depicting landmarks of London from the local antique shop as a gift to send for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday at the Home for Retired Bears in Darkest Peru, and he takes on a series of odd jobs in order to earn enough money to purchase the book. However, before he has a chance to buy it, he witnesses a thief stealing it from the shop, and chases after him. The thief escapes with the book, but Paddington is arrested and framed for the theft, and ultimately convicted in court. He is then sent to prison.
Not just any prison. The Tower of freakin’ London.
While in prison, the Browns work hard to try to prove Paddington’s innocence, and they find the real culprit. They discover that the actual thief is their neighbor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant having the time of his life in this role), who is a new client of Henry Brown’s risk management firm, and an egotistical actor of former acclaim who is now reduced to making dog food commercials. Buchanan has stolen the book because he believes it holds clues to a treasure box filled with gold and jewelry, stolen from a circus performer by his grandfather. As he travels through London seeking the clues from the book, he evades the police through the use of his acting skills and many old costumes from his theater days.
Meanwhile, Paddington, still quite clumsy, accidentally dyes all of the prison uniforms pink while on laundry duty, irritating the inmates, but his good-natured willingness to make the best of all situations allows him to make friends with many of his fellow prisoners, three of whom offer to help him clear his name if he helps them break out of prison. The Browns, having gotten bogged down in a plot to break into Buchanan’s house to see if they can find the costume Paddington described of the real thief of the pop-up book, accidentally miss coming to see Paddington during visiting hours, and he becomes despondent, thinking that they have forgotten about him. Thus, even though he is usually a stickler for the rules, he agrees to help Knuckles, Phibs, and Spoon with their jailbreak. Once on the outside, the other three inmates immediately abandon the idea of helping Paddington prove his innocence, and they try to talk him into leaving the country with them, which he refuses on principle, setting off to clear his name on his own.
In the end – without getting overly bogged down in details because I want to encourage you all to watch this film on your own – Paddington is reunited with the Browns, and they are able to trap Buchanan on a train, holding the pop-up book. Judy takes a photograph, so that they have proof that he is the thief. And in the 11th hour, Knuckles, Phibs, and Spoon return from their attempt to flee England in order to help the Browns rescue Paddington from drowning in the train car that Buchanan uncouples, causing it to land in a river. Buchanan is arrested, and sent to prison, where… I won’t say any more. This is one of those films that you need to watch the closing credits sequence for extra fun, and it is there where you will see Buchanan’s ultimate and glorious fate.
Paddington 2 didn’t choke me up the same way the original film did; the storyline is a clear deviation from any of the original stories by Michael Bond, and so it didn’t activate that dastardly childhood nostalgia button of mine. However, the film succeeds in depicting the universal lessons and truth of Paddington as borne out in all of Bond’s stories: Paddington, by being kind-hearted and willing to see the goodness in everyone, is able to rally any community he is in – whether it is Windsor Gardens, or the Tower of London – to be on his side. His honesty, genuineness, and polite manners (he tips his hat to one and all he sees), allow him to survive any shenanigans he accidentally gets himself into. And with the unconditional love of the Browns (and even the love of his prison inmates), we learn that the bonds of chosen families can be as strong as those of blood families. And now I can feel myself getting a bit teary again.
Before I leave you all to eat my dinner (marmalade sandwiches, of course), I need to let you know one last thing: Phoenix Buchanan is, without a doubt, the best role of Hugh Grant’s entire damn career. While Kidman’s steely Millicent Clyde in the first film was unsettling with her smooth-talking love of taxidermy, Buchanan is frightening on a whole new level, because he is legitimately batshit insane, while also being hysterically funny. This is a tough needle to thread, especially in what is ostensibly a children’s film, but Grant hits it out of the park and it is spectacular to behold.
It’s January. It’s cold. It is, after all, a “dump month.” And we’ve just emerged from what is possibly the worst year of most of our lives. Do yourself a favor and watch the Paddington movies. They are a gentle, warm, soothing, and witty balm after the hellscape of 2020. And with any luck, we’ll be getting a third Paddington film soon…
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone