Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
I admit that I was skeptical of Paddington, fully expecting it to be a mutilation of a beloved childhood story; when I saw the initial reviews of the film, I swallowed my humble pie and headed to the theatre. I’m so glad I did.
While there will always be, for me, an excess of physical comedy in this kind of film, director Paul King brought substance and charm to the picture as well. Woven throughout the movie were references to classics of children’s literature; I got nervous initially about the explorer plotline, anticipating a Babar-esque tale of colonialist capture, but the movie mercifully and smartly resisted that, showing a story of cultural exchange instead of domination. I’ll say no more on that point here, since it would spoil the main conflict of the film.
There were several specific references to British children’s literature, with a poignant scene of a lonely Paddington offering a pigeon a crust of marmalade sandwich. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins started to run through my head, and the pigeon (and company) make repeat appearances, culminating in a London rooftop scene that nearly had me singing “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” The larger themes of kindness, care, and community shone through from the P.L. Travers classic, too.
In one of the most poignant scenes, Paddington’s Aunt Lucy sets him up as a stowaway and reminds him that the English have a history of taking in children and loving them as their own. She puts the tag marked “Please look after this bear” around his neck and references the London bombings that sent so many children, themselves tagged, riding the rails toward the countryside and safety. I thought of the Pevensies from Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” The scene is amplified in the 2005 film adaptation where we see the emotional and bustling station. And, of course, there’s Platform 9 and ¾ as well as King’s Cross Station from the Harry Potter series, both of which play with the significance of railroads in British children’s lit. Train stations serve as scenes of life-altering events; they move us, literally and figuratively.
The conflict in Paddington comes from Nicole Kidman’s character Millicent, an eclectic, egomaniacal taxidermist who falls in line behind The White Witch and Cruella de Vil—a crew of British female villains who delight in animal torture. With a PG rating for “mild action and rude humor” (including an absolutely disgusting ear wax scene), the film can be intense for smaller or sensitive kids. And while the story has been modernized, it retains all of author Michael Bond’s original warmth; the titular bear is sweet, gentle, and polite, and the Brown family sloughs off its rude and rushed exterior to reveal a family who genuinely loves one another, with affection to spare.
Paddington’s arrival in London makes a liar of his family’s explorer friend, showing the bear a city that always rains but never smiles or even notices the strangers in our midst. The bear is bustled and ignored, and the Browns take him in begrudgingly on the insistence of Mrs. Brown (played by the quirky and lovable Sally Hawkins). Their transformation illustrates the problems not only with how so many of us treat strangers, but also with how so many of us treat the ones we claim to love the best. The lesson of Paddington—that real homes are defined by love and real families by care regardless of species—asks audiences to consider the ways we show God’s love in a world consumed by busyness and fear.
It’s a fast-paced film with a slow-down message. The character Mr. Gruber (an antiques shop owner played by Jim Broadbent) reminds viewers of the consequences of disregarding and distrusting so-called strangers. A Jew who escaped from his homeland during the Nazi occupation, he tells Paddington of his own train ride into England, where (to paraphrase) his body traveled faster than his heart. This reference deepens the film’s connection to history even further, layering the allusions of children’s literature and war onto the story of a bear in London in the present.
How easy it was to overlook the treatment of the Jews—or to look away. How easy it would be for the Browns to overlook a small, sticky bear—or to look away. And how easy it would be for us to overlook the lonely, the homeless, the sad, the strangers in our midst, but instead God calls us to feed them and love them and serve them. I understand that a marmalade sandwich, kept under one’s hat for emergencies, is a great gesture to begin with. Or so says a little bear called Paddington.