The PADDINGTON Franchise Has A Villain Problem
While managing to meaningfully touch on universal themes of community, self-identity, believing in others and caring for those in need, the messages of the Paddington franchise would mean so much more if it would just let go of its villains.
Film critics have caught Paddington fever. Paddington 2 has become the most recent film to hold the title of “Best Reviewed Film in History,” leaving the door wide open for a critic to momentarily play Kirkland Signature Armond White. Rest assured, I’m not here to do any such thing. Paddington 2 is a lovely movie, all in all, and so is its predecessor. They both manage to meaningfully touch on universal themes of community, self-identity, believing in others and caring for those in need. However, I can’t ignore that the messages of the Paddington franchise would mean so much more if it would just let go of its villains – or at least, rethink them.
Paddington opens with a simple premise: a bear, from Peru, arrives on a platform in Paddington, in need of someone to take him in. A family, the Browns, is (somewhat) willing to step up to the plate, and bring him into their home. Many natives of Paddington are less accepting of this cute little bear, but the Browns become committed to keeping him safe. Slowly, he wins over the hearts of most of the townsfolk with his sweet nature and wide-eyed optimism.
It’s a wonderful conceit. And then there’s the villains. In the first film, we have the Boris Badonov-esque Millicent (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist looking to capture Paddington in order to turn him into an exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Millicent provides Paddington his biggest hurdle; because of her presence, he can’t peacefully acclimate to his new home.
After Millicent is spitefully thwarted in the film’s conclusion, Paddington 2 supplants her role with a new villain: Phoenix Buchanan – another mustache-twirling baddie with a naughty scheme (played by Hugh Grant).
Phoenix’s plan ends up unintentionally landing Paddington in prison for theft. Again, of no fault of his own, Paddington isn’t welcome in his new home, no matter how earnestly he tries. This is a powerful idea, and one that many critics have understandably clutched onto. Paddington’s plight can be (and frequently has been) extrapolated to a commentary on how we treat immigrants, and seeing a children’s film work towards such profundity is not something we’re used to.
So, why are the villains a problem? When you’re trafficking in themes with such real-world application as the hostile treatment of immigrants, introducing villains can be a tricky gambit. In Paddington, specifically, the villains provide an over-lionization of its opposites, shifting the focus on how heroic the Browns are for helping Paddington stay safe. Though their efforts to care for Paddington’s well being, adopting him into their family, is both no small feat and something to truly admire, focusing on their heroics overshadows the film’s central thesis: that there are some folks who are consumed by the simple yet monolithic goal of surviving in a society that is designed to keep them out, and that the rest of us should be helping them survive.
“Paddington is driven by relaying the messages of goodness that his Aunt Lucy instilled in him. He genuinely wants to make the world right in what little way he can, and his sincerity lends the accidents in which he finds himself involved all the more endearment,” wrote Kyle Turner for Paste Magazine. He’s right; Paddington’s insistence to persevere and make the best of any situation is the franchise’s largest strength. Unfortunately, the bear’s goodness is always pivoting around the evil of one villain, rather than a larger societal malevolence, be it in townsfolk, business owners, the judicial system or otherwise. When you displace all evil onto the face of one villain, you take away the strengths of the films’ commentary on immigrants and Others. The punch of that allegory is that many immigrants who come to developed countries have to find ways to survive, not simply because one person wants them out of the country, but as a result of a systemic attitude that we have toward Others.
Evil manifests in many subtle ways – it can’t be attributed to one agent. And when distinct villains are introduced, the audience is then more incentivized to clamor for both the downfall of that one force of evil as well as for those that conquer the villain. In Paddington, this translates into less interest in the facets that make Paddington an effective immigrant narrative.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem unique to the Paddington films. Children’s films historically have trouble writing third acts without devolving into video game-like bosses that, once you beat them, you succeed. Look no further than beloved Pixar film Up (or Pixar’s catalogue, more generally). Wouldn’t Up have been a much better film if the majority of it was dedicated to Carl and Russell just trying to survive the natural elements involved in their journey, instead of introducing this inane heel for the sake of drawing definitive lines of good and evil? On the same token, wouldn’t the Paddington films have sharper claws if the conflicts were born out of the titular bear navigating a society that’s both foreign and hostile toward him, out of subtle aggressions that make him feel unwanted?
By happenstance, I watched a film in close proximity to my viewings of the Paddingtons that is almost identical in plot: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s 2011 film Le Havre. Marcel, a native of the small French village Le Havre, comes across Blondin Miguel‘s Idrissa, a young African immigrant hiding from the police. Marcel takes the boy in, determined to keep him safe.
Marcel (played by André Wilms) is a poor man – an aging shoe shiner often shooed away by business owners. Where the Browns of Paddington are a wealthy family with more than enough means to take Paddington in, Marcel has outstanding balances at local food stands. And yet, Marcel doesn’t balk. A primary distinction between Le Havre and the Paddington films is that Kaurismäki’s film isn’t about whether we should help others or not.
“I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror until I made a film about unemployment,” Kaurismäki said about his 1996 film Drifting Clouds. That compulsion, to do anything to help, is reflected in Marcel. More importantly, that compulsion isn’t a didactic lesson of the film, but something internalized. Le Havre refuses to announce its profundity, or the heroism of the village’s efforts (who rally at Marcel’s call). The film’s characters are almost mechanical in movement, stopping between deliberate shifts – somewhere between the stillness of David Hockney and an absurdist take on Robert Bresson’s asceticism.
In Le Havre, this mechanical affect works beautifully. Marcel and his fellow townsfolk help Idrissa simply because they have identified the need to. Kaurismäki knows they don’t deserve a melodramatic pronouncement of their heroics, like the one found in Paddington. Instead, he presents facts: people help a boy who needs help. They operate like machines programmed for simple tasks. Yet, keeping Idrissa safe comes from an emotional compulsion, not a mechanical one.
While we’re obviously rooting for Marcel, Kaurismäki never asks us to think of him as a Good Guy™. Instead of focusing on Marcel’s heroics, the film never loses focus of Idrissa’s plight, which stems from the avoidance of a singular heel. If the Paddington franchise has a villain problem, Le Havre has the solution.
A Faceless Evil
Le Havre’s “villain,” Monet, is the Chief of Police (played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who’s wise to Marcel. He knows he’s keeping Idrissa safe, but has yet to catch him red handed. And increasingly, Monet’s conflicted about whether he wants to apprehend him or not. It becomes clear his efforts to find Idrissa are mere directives from above rather than sheer will to serve justice.
In an interview with Film Comment, Kaurismäki spoke about Monet, “The Chief of Police is just a voice. That’s a completely conscious choice. I think the right way to show a faceless machine is to not give it a face … It is more effective to show faceless power. You must create the atmosphere that they are there, behind the scenes, and that’s it.”
This is precisely my problem with the Paddington franchise. The film’s paradigm of good and evil is too easily distilled into “these people are good” and “this person is bad.” But giving evil a face isn’t healthy, because, as Kaurismäki notes, whether there is a snickering, conniving bad guy present or not, evil is always present, behind the scenes. The majority of the first film suggests a society that is intolerant of Others. But the more it zooms in on Kidman and Grant’s villains, the less resonant that premise is, and the more it seems interested in a dialectic of heroes and villains — none of which are Paddington, mind you. Too often, this leaves both the charm and plight of our bear to wallow, stuck in the second act while the film rushes to conclude its lazy conflict.
As I mentioned, this problem isn’t unique to the Paddington franchise, but something all too common in children’s films. It’s not uniformly a bad idea to have a villain, but more often than not, it becomes an easy way to create conflict that, ultimately, sterilizes any attempts at thematic transcendence. In Paddington, it hamstrings the power of the actual story, that this bear has to fight to survive in a society that keeps telling him he doesn’t belong.
The Power of Optimism
Le Havre is nothing if not optimistic; its optimism is fairy tale-esque. But the power of that optimism works because Kaurismäki understands evil – he understands why optimism is important, because he apprehends evil as broader than one determined force. The film’s climax finds Monet overcome by the need to help this boy survive, rather than have him deported. The scene’s tension derives from the impending doom of a faceless police squadron, slowly approaching. It’s not the distinct villainy of one baddie, but a force symbolic of something much larger. And in between this force of power, his professional duty and Idrissa’s livelihood, Monet chooses Idrissa. As Slant Magazine’s Phil Coldiron put it, Kaurismäki’s morality is formed by “a humanism that acknowledges the overwhleming scope of the word while still believing that one must absolutely affect all the positive change one can.” The film is a call to action.
“Only if we view the world as it is – which Idrissa does when he calmly stares at the inspector … from the hold of a ship, his life hanging on their shared look – can we achieve a view that will allow us to act positively, to escape easy self-pity,” stated Coldiron. “In that moment, the inspector, Monet, does just this, as he recognizes what a clear view allows him to see. His sudden decision to do what is just based on only a boy’s look is all the evidence one needs to confirm the political capacity of the cinema.”
Coldiron asserted that Le Havre’s “view is that of a child who hasn’t yet been broken to accept a world of limited possibilities, which is another way of saying that its view is revolutionary.” You could say the same for Paddington – he has the power to affect change with a mere look, because his optimism is revolutionary. And the Paddington films would be wiser to lean into the power of Paddington’s sincere goodness, rather than pitting him against a villain of the week.
Do you agree or do you think the Paddington franchise should continue using these same types of villains? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.