Guest Opinion: “Paddington 2” breaks new ground for high-quality sequels

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Visual novelty, intricate points entertain all

Brian Riley is a former writer for The California Aggie (an opinion writer for Fall Quarter of 2010 and a science writer for the Winter, Spring and Summer quarters of 2012). He is currently working on his Ph.D. in education at UC Davis.

The old saying “you can’t judge a book by a cover” is equally applicable to movies: you can’t judge a movie by its poster. For “Paddington 2,” this is especially true. What looks like merely a children’s film, or a film for kids and their families, is actually so much more.

Just considering the cinematic aspects alone, the film is well worth seeing. The whole movie is imbued with carnival colors — red, light blue, yellow, green — emanating from its central “steam fair” (carnival) motif and story line, including intriguing old fashioned steam-train action scenes that create an engaging sense of timelessness with past and present blending together.

But wait! There’s much more eye candy than this. Even beyond the novel experience of seeing a friendly and hilariously accident-prone bear cub live among humans and (mostly) accepted as a normal participant in society, there are some genuinely interesting trick-photography interludes (done with CGI technology) featuring a pop-up book come to life, for example, or a mouse’s-eye view of the inside of a water pipe, for another. There’s also a part where Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) rides the back of a neighborhood stray dog, like a horse, during a thrill-packed chase scene that involves water, land and air-based modes of movement.

While the kids are enjoying the slapstick fun (all of which is cleverly done), the more mature or intellectually discerning viewers can enjoy the homages to Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (when Paddington goes into a large clock’s gear assembly) or even “The Great Escape” (when Chef Knuckles barks out a line in the vocal style of James Garner).

Despite its light-hearted nature, the screenwriters and filmmakers manage to include some pointed social commentary in a way that adds to the overall punch of the movie. In a climactic moment, the family father, Mr. Brown (played by Hugh Bonneville) launches into a heartfelt speech while standing in the middle of the street that is addressed to a neighborhood bigot who had refused to grant Paddington any decent consideration. This is an obvious plea for more tolerance of diversity which, at this time in history, occurs amid the cultural tumult of the Brexit debacle in Britain.

Other veiled social commentaries can be inferred or interpreted by a close consideration of the dialogue and set-ups. Although they had the support and participation of the son and brother Jonathan (played by Samuel Joslin) during a strenuous investigation launched by the mother, Mrs. Brown (played by Sally Hawkins), and daughter Judy (played by Madeleine Harris), it was mostly a woman/girl-led endeavor, with Mrs. Brown providing the strategizing and Judy Brown providing journalistic back-up with the student newspaper she created. At a key moment when the investigation bore fruit, the up-till-then doubting and skeptical father, Mr. Brown, was eager to claim co-credit, exclaiming: “We were right!” — “Sorry, ‘we’?” says Mrs. Brown in response, gently correcting his error.

In another scene, which seems ripe for symbolic interpretation, a very large statue of an angel is loosened from its moorings (unintentionally, due to rash actions borne of vanity on the part of an aspiring elitist, the movie’s main antagonist) and makes a spectacular 100-foot drop beneath a cathedral dome, where it shatters on the floor.

One possible interpretation is that top-down authoritarian government and social control (in contrast to bottom-up, citizen led democratic methods) should finally be completely overcome. This interpretation takes a bit of understanding of British customs, since it is the sitting monarch who technically heads the church.

The bottom-up, participatory governance/running/creation of a society is not guaranteed to be without ills — a fact which is illustrated by a betrayal of trust shown in the movie between Paddington and Knuckles, one of the other (eventual) protagonists (played by Brendan Gleeson). Paddington is fooled by Knuckles into thinking that he is engaging in a democratic decision-making process in a plan to escape their captors (a corrupted legal and prison system) and right certain wrongs, but after escaping, Paddington discovers that Knuckles’ real intention was to flee the country to set up a restaurant using the marmalade recipe that he got from Paddington. When Paddington declines to leave the country with Knuckles and his two cohorts and takes off on his own, Knuckles predicts that Paddington will be recaptured and declares: “It’s his choice.” But was it really a choice? When one is defrauded, as part of an ostensibly democratic process, one’s power of choice is taken away.

Hugh Grant, playing the role of Phoenix Buchanan, the main antagonist of the movie, who is now in his mid-50s, seems finally to have hit his stride as an actor in “Paddington 2,” with a masterful performance. Some say that Grant steals the show, but I suspect a lot of that especially high praise stems from the way he first appears in the movie: as part of a public performance where the audience applauds while he makes his entrance.

This can be compared to the Beatles’ über-famous Sgt. Pepper album and the way the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” receives applause near the beginning of the album. To me it seems to be the collective performance of the entire ensemble of actors, Hugh Grant included, that really adds that necessary last ingredient, or layer, that elevates this movie to greatness.

In one scene, Phoenix disguises himself as King Henry V in order to pull off a particular caper (one of many). It’s impossible for me to believe that the screenwriters chose Henry V randomly, due to the way that the entire movie is so carefully and intricately structured. Henry V was one of the most complex kings in English history, suggesting that the writers wanted to add depth to Phoenix’s character — a depth that could hint that Phoenix (i.e., Hugh Grant) might return in some way in a “Paddington 3” or a “Paddington 4” movie down the road. StudioCanal recently purchased the intellectual property rights to the Paddington Bear book character for use in film and television, so that would also give much leeway for future “Paddington” feature film projects.

 

Written by: Brian Riley — Guest Writer