Paddington – In London everyone is different, therefore anyone can fit in

Paddington2When I first heard that there will be a CGI part-animated, part-live-action film about Paddington the Bear, I rolled my eyes and fully expected it to be terrible. After all, the Paddington books are fairly slight and targeted at a very young audience, and CGI+ live-action films on old cartoon or picture book characters have a terrible, terrible track record. So I am pleasantly surprised to say that „Paddington” is actually quite a fun little film, thoroughly uplifting and sweet. Perhaps what CGI reboots needed was a bit of Britishness? Make no mistake, „Paddington” is an extremely British film, from the self-deprecating jokes -stiff upper lip, endless talk about the weather- to short appearances from Brit stars, such as Matt Lucas of „Little Britain” fame as a cab driver, and the new „Doctor Who” Peter Capaldi as a grumpy neighbor.

The titular Paddington is a cub from a previously undiscovered species of highly intelligent bears from „Darkest Peru”, sent to London to find a new home after his own was devastated by an earthquake. After being visited by a kindly British explorer, his family had entertained for decades fond illusions of one day going to London, imagining it as a land of hospitable people and marmalade, so Paddington is dismayed to find out that London is not exactly welcoming him with arms wide open. Adventures ensue as the little bear is taken in by the Brown family (which includes the wonderful Sally Hawkins) and hunted by a gleefully evil taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman at her most ice-queen-ish. It’s not a groundbreaking story by any means, but it’s pretty funny, in a slapstick way that recalls old cartoon shorts. And while I’m never going to be a big fan of CGI/live-action hybrids, I liked a lot of the film’s visual approach, set in a candy-coloured London which seems made of toys and dollhouses.

Rather unusual for such a cute and harmless movie aimed at kids, however, the main conversation around “Paddington” has been grumpy grown-up debate. Publications from all over the political spectrum, from the lefties at the Guardian  to the Tories at the Spectator, have called “Paddington” an open manifesto against the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the rising political force whose main selling point is the promise to stop immigrants from coming to Britain, and presumably kick out many of those who are already there. Indeed, Paddington is essentially an illegal immigrant, arrived into London hidden on a ship. The film is not subtle in drawing a parallel between his fate and that of World War II refugees, and suggests that it is British nature to have a kind and welcoming attitude to foreigners in need after all. “Everybody is different in London, therefore anyone can fit in”, says our protagonist. I don’t know if the filmmakers had the explicit intention of making a political statement, but it is all strangely well-timed (or ill-timed, depending on your perspective).

As a foreigner living in London myself, I’ve watched all of this unfold with amusement and a bit of sadness. I somehow felt uniquely qualified to appreciate this movie. Just like Paddington, I had also arrived to the British capital with a great deal of enthusiasm that was soon crushed, and just like him, I eventually found a little place for myself, although I can’t say I’ve been quite as lucky as our friendly bear (it’s also true though that nobody has yet chased me with the intention of stuffing me and displaying me in a museum, so there’s that). While I was watching “Paddington”, I recovered, for a brief amount of time, the initial untainted joy I had when I first stepped foot on British soil (in St.Pancras station, not Paddington). We can say one thing about this movie: it makes for great advertising of its home land. “Paddington” loves Britain and Britain loves “Paddington” right back, if we’re to judge by the full theatre in which I saw it.

Unfortunately the unmeasured optimism of “Paddington” is appropriately childish. I personally don’t think a movie like this is relevant in any way to debates about immigration, but it is very telling that the possibility has even been brought up at all. The problem isn’t that “Paddington” is talking (or not) in favour of immigrants, against (or for) a party or another. The problem is that the current atmosphere has become so poisoned that a lot of people can no longer watch a cute film about a cartoon bear without either feeling a pang of hatred against foreigners or one of regret for times when such reactions would not exist (if there ever was such a time). “How would Britain’s marmalade industry cope with 260,000 Peruvian Bears turning up each year?” asks The Telegraph.  I really don’t know, but I have a feeling that dilemmas like these are why us grown-ups can’t have nice things. Which is a shame, because the “Paddington” movie is definitely a nice thing.