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Why everyone who sees the Paddington movies can’t stop raving about them

Paddington 2 is currently the best-reviewed movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. With good reason.

Paddington 2
Paddington is here to save the day.
Warner Bros.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you follow enough people who talk about movies on social media, you might be confused by the big discussion of the moment. It’s not about one of the big Oscar contenders. It’s not about one of the Sundance favorites. No, it’s about a computer-animated bear named Paddington, whose latest film, Paddington 2, hit US theaters on January 12.

Paddington fans are talking about how emotional the movie made them:

Or how the movie inspired them to be better people:

They’re arguing about which Paddington movie was better:

And making Paddington-themed signs for the recent women’s march:

And some of them are just wondering if it’s finally time to take the Paddington plunge:

This is a lot of excitement for a children’s film about a computer-animated bear who is very polite to people.

But Paddington fever extends beyond Twitter. Paddington 2 is currently the best-reviewed film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes (an admittedly useless stat that will get tanked the second someone decides to add one negative review, as happened with Lady Bird), and though its opening weekend box office was a little soft, it only fell 25 percent in week two, a very good hold, especially for the dark filmgoing days of January.

And I, dear reader, can attest to Paddington 2’s power, having gone to an 8 pm screening in Los Angeles, well-attended by kids, parents, and assorted couples having a date night (your brave correspondent included). We all laughed at the right parts and teared up at the right parts and just generally got into the movie’s groove. It was the most attentive I’ve seen an audience in a long while.

But why this movie? Why this bear? There are a handful of good reasons for Paddington’s growing, very polite world domination. But before we get there, I need to tell you a bit about what Paddington is.

Who is Paddington? (Besides a bear, of course.)

Paddington 2
Paddington loves living in London.
Warner Bros.

Paddington was the creation of children’s book author Michael Bond, who wrote a series of very sweet, small-scale books about the titular bear, so named because he was found at Paddington Station in London after having spent his early years in “darkest Peru.” (Bond originally wanted Paddington to have arrived from somewhere in Africa, until it was pointed out to him bears don’t live in Africa.)

Adopted by the Brown family — Henry, Mary, Judy, and Jonathan — Paddington explores London and gets to know this very busy new world he’s landed in, especially his new neighborhood of Windsor Gardens. His blue jacket and red hat complete his iconic appearance, and everyone in London seems to be just fine with the idea that he is a talking bear who loves marmalade.

Paddington is, in essence, a very well-behaved 7-year-old. He is polite to all, looks for the good in other people, and takes in the world with great curiosity. But he also has a tendency to get in over his head and make huge messes, which are mostly forgiven because he’s such a thoughtful and kind bear. He is a classic children’s book character: gentle but rambunctious.

Bond produced numerous Paddington titles between 1958 (with the first book, A Bear Called Paddington) and his death in 2017, with his final Paddington book to be published posthumously in the summer of 2018 (commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first book). Those books ranged from collections of one-off Paddington stories he published in other publications to children’s picture books. But the “core” Paddington titles are the 15 chapter books about the bear published between 1958 and 2018. These contain several smaller adventures featuring the bear, each taking up its own chapter.

Notably, Paddington’s exploits have been adapted several times for television, with the 1975 BBC series being a particular standout for its blend of a stop-motion puppet Paddington with two-dimensional, traditionally illustrated backgrounds. It looked like nothing else in kids’ TV at the time, and it underlined why Londoners seemed so unfazed by Paddington’s presence: He was more “real” than they were, an idea that certainly must have seemed true to his youngest fans.

Despite Paddington’s TV success, it took until 2014 (and 2015 in the US) for the bear to get a big-screen movie adaptation, and everything about it seemed to be a massive warning sign. Colin Firth, who had originally been contracted as the voice of Paddington, dropped out of the project mere months before it was to be released, and he was hastily replaced by Ben Whishaw, whose younger-sounding voice might prove to be a better fit for the character. The trailers played up the movie’s broadest, wackiest moments. It seemed like yet another cheap kids’ movie: computer-animated characters and very real actors interacting unconvincingly, and lots of gags about bodily functions.

But Paddington was a stealthy success. Thanks to winsome writing and direction from Paul King, and a cast filled with heavy hitters (including everyone from Sally Hawkins to Hugh Bonneville to Nicole Kidman to Peter Capaldi), the movie was greeted with warm reviews and more than $250 million at the worldwide box office.

A sequel was only natural at that point, though that sequel had to switch distributors in the US, from the imploding Weinstein Company (undone by its co-founder Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct) to Warner Bros.

But what would have been hard to predict was that Paddington 2 would match — and in the eyes of some critics (this one included), exceed — its predecessor.

Paddington 2 is a non-grating children’s film, and beautifully made too

Paddington 2
Even in prison, Paddington makes friends.
Warner Bros.

The first thing you might notice if you watch the first Paddington (which is readily available on Netflix) is that it’s not constantly blaring to get your attention. Where many kids’ movies turn up the volume and shout at viewers, Paddington is a comparatively gentle experience. The bear’s adventures are whimsical more than they are boisterous, and even when he causes mayhem, it’s very small-scale mayhem. Indeed, in the second film, a major plot point revolves around him giving someone a bad haircut — not exactly a high-stakes situation.

The movie Paddington most reminds me of in terms of its gentle, bucolic storybook feel is the 1995 film Babe, which proved a surprising Oscar favorite. Like that movie, Paddington is a sneaky, subtle call for tolerance and good manners. And like that movie’s sequel, Babe: Pig in the City, Paddington 2 is a (slightly) more serious look at what happens when you put the titular character’s pleas for politeness into a darker context.

In the sequel, Paddington is framed for the theft of a very expensive, one-of-a-kind pop-up book (which he has been saving up for, intending to send to his Aunt Lucy back in Peru). The villain is the washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan, played by Hugh Grant in a performance of such hammy precision that I think I laughed at every single thing he did. But because nobody suspects the handsome, upstanding Phoenix — and too many people suspect a bear — Paddington is sent to jail, where he meets the ferocious Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) and sees his every belief put to the test. Meanwhile, the Browns do their damnedest to win Paddington’s release.

I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to say that things turn out well in the end. Good triumphs over evil, and Paddington is reunited with his adoptive family. But the road there is filled with stressful moments, darkest hours before the dawn, and trying times when Paddington wonders if doing the right thing is really worth it.

The second film also scales up the level of production just a bit, with a climactic train chase that would have blown the first movie’s budget. (At times, the comedic action beats in these movies recall the best of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton in their commitment to stuffing as many visual gags into an action sequence as possible. Paddington 2 even directly quotes the famous “trapped in mechanical gears” sequence from Chaplin’s Modern Times.)

King (who once again directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby) has a knack for turning his London setting into its best storybook self. Panoramic wide shots capture the day-to-day activities of Windsor Gardens, everybody in the sleepy little neighborhood going about their work. When Paddington is sent to prison, the neighborhood starts to fall apart without the little bear to be kind to everyone. The scenes are peppered with little vignettes, or with performances by a calypso band that comments on the action.

The prison is a gloomier setting, but it’s also an excellent stage for production numbers. The Browns’ home, too, has the feel of an elaborate pop-up diorama, filled with fun little details to pore over in the edges of the frame. In particular, the Paddington movies are terrific at using these little bits with the Browns to set up story points that seem unnecessary at first. Until, say, Mary training to swim the English Channel comes in handy at precisely the right moment in the third act. Even the obvious computer animation of Paddington has a hyper-real quality to it that blends perfectly with the storybook frames.

King and the cast turn the world of Paddington 2 into a soothing, enjoyable night at the movies. But there’s another, more subtle reason Paddington 2 resonates at this particular moment in history.

Paddington 2 is a gentle defense of the need for immigrant communities

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Paddington’s friends from around Windsor Gardens are a multicultural group.
Warner Bros.

Perhaps my favorite Paddington 2 media riff is that of the British magazine Sight & Sound, which gave its review the Shakespeare-referencing headline “Brexit, pursued by a bear.” The story of Paddington is inherently an immigrant story, and even in the first film, King and his collaborators celebrated the increased multiculturalism of London in the 21st century. (There’s that calypso band, after all.) But Paddington 2 takes these ideas to new heights.

Don’t mistake this for the movie preaching to anybody, even in a scene in which the Browns confront their constantly vigilant neighbor Mr. Curry (Capaldi) over his inability to accept that Paddington is a good little bear, simply because Mr. Curry has prejudged Paddington due to how he looks. Paddington 2 is a wonderfully made movie in and of itself, and it understands that its message is best grasped when couched in an entertaining, clockwork contraption of a story.

The message is there. Paddington’s neighbors are a diverse, multicultural group of characters, but the police clearly think Paddington committed a crime rather than Phoenix because one seems more like a criminal to them.

Hiding this sort of stuff in metaphor is a time-honored tradition in children’s movies (see also: Babe and its sequel), and because kids will already see themselves in Paddington, it’s easier to make the leap to understanding, at the very least, anti-talking-bear prejudice. Similarly, Paddington’s insistence on seeing the best in everyone — even the fearsome Knuckles — will hopefully spark similar inclinations in kids.

I hesitate to talk about this too much, lest Paddington 2 become an object of a culture war it has no interest in taking part in. Still, King and his collaborators were making this movie in the midst of Brexit, with many in the UK made uncomfortable by increased levels of immigration to their country and unsure of what that meant for the nation’s future. Paddington 2 insists at every turn that kindness, empathy, and marmalade are the solutions to the vast majority of life’s problems.

Early in Paddington 2, Paddington says, “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” It says more about reality than it does the movie that this might be read as a radical political statement.

To watch this movie is to imagine its title character fixing everyone in the audience with one of his trademark hard stares, until we all, abashed, vow to do better.

Paddington 2 is in theaters. Paddington is on Netflix.