We’re living in a pretty messy time. Through the alienation of the modern world we can’t help but question the limits of our good-natured selves. The Paddington films see this and suggest something extremely simple but bold: If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right. There’s plenty of stories that tell people to be good to others, but few capture the amazing power of kindness like the Paddington films do.
Paddington is a innocent young bear who comes to London expecting the British people to welcome him with open arms. They don’t. In London, Paddington is the other. Not just as a stranger but also as an immigrant and, well, a bear. When we’re kids brought up in a stable environment we tend to think being nice to others is common sense. It can be depressing to learn that a lot of adults are cruel and distrusting by default.
In spite of showing that, the Paddington films still believe in the existence of unconditional kindness. The Brown family takes Paddington in because Mrs. Brown believes that a young child with nowhere to stay deserves food and shelter. That’s not a radical idea, but her goodness comes through in the fact that she provides that without question. Mrs. Brown doesn’t need to analyse whether it’s the most logical thing to do. She just… does it, because it’s the RIGHT thing to do. It tells us that we don’t have to lose our caring innocence as adults.
On the other hand, Mr. Brown believes he’s too grown up and reasonable to accept Paddington. He’s a “risk analyst” who’s afraid of the danger he might bring. At first he accuses Paddington of lying about being homeless, and then he tries to get insurance because he thinks that he’s an impending danger. Mr. Brown doesn’t have any reason to believe this except that Paddington is different. When Paddington floods their bathroom he allows this to confirm his suspicions, having little sympathy for the fact that this young bear knows little to nothing about how you’re meant to behave in human society.
Paddington makes a lot of these mistakes while trying to do what’s normal and expected in our world. Not only does this struggle with unspoken customs reflect his experience as an immigrant, but it’s also shared by people on the ADHD and autism spectrums. Like many neurodivergent people, Paddington feels empathy differently to the norm and sometimes has to grasp it in an intellectual way rather than emotionally. Because of that Paddington’s kindness involves deliberate routines of polite words and phrases. It’s never suggested that this makes him less kind or sincere. Paddington does these routines BECAUSE he understands how valuable it is to be good to others.
Paddington says that “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right”. In a very Paddington way he’s saying that being good to others has the power to transform the world, even if it just puts a smile on one person’s face. That doesn’t mean that he never causes trouble. But even through the most comically huge slip-ups we’re shown how hard he tries to do things right for others. This makes Paddington endearing, and allows us to see that kindness is more than following social rules and never making mistakes.
Speaking of folks who’ve made mistakes, we have the inmates in Paddington 2. Suffice to say they’re even less receptive to Paddington’s politeness than the average Londoner. Many of us think that people are in prison because they deserve it, because they’ve done a bad thing that requires them to be punished and kept away from the outside world. A lot of prisoners believe it too, and they internalise their crimes as who they are and never become better people. In short, the prison industrial complex… doesn’t work. But to many of us it’s just the way things are, so we don’t tend to question it.
Paddington is nice to these people because he doesn’t know how he’s “meant” to act, and his usual slip-ups quickly makes him a target. Just as the poor innocent bear is about to be clobbered by a hardened chef named Knuckles, he shoves a marmalade sandwich in his mouth. The euphoria on Knuckles’ face as he eats the first sweet thing he’s tasted in who knows how long is absolutely pure (and hilarious). Like a kid who discovered chocolate. From this moment we see the grizzled prisoner slowly realise he loves baking sweets for others. It’s silly and dramatic, but it shows the deeper truth that we’re all capable of finding innocent joy in our lives. That no matter how much we believe we’re bad people, we can still do good in the world. Paddington may be the only inmate who’s innocent, but he’s definitely not the only one who can understand kindness.
It can seem naive to expect people to change their ways because we’re nice to them. The Paddington films recognise this, and for tricky situations Paddington has the hard stare. He tells us it’s for “when people have forgotten their manners”. In other words, when someone says something so awful that there’s no way to explain how wrong they are. Knuckles tries to dress Paddington down for trusting his Aunt Lucy’s belief in the value of kindness. So Paddington uses his Aunt’s stare to make him feel uneasy about the things he said. It’s essentially a superpower that projects empathy into others.
But there’s always people who’ll continue to do garbage things. Even as Paddington brings joy to everyone else in his neighbourhood, Mr. Curry continues to treat him as a dangerous other. This comes to a head when Mr. Curry obstructs the Browns’ attempts to save Paddington at the end of Paddington 2. He tells them that Paddington is a danger, that the neighbourhood is better off without him. Mr. Brown of all people takes a stand. “Paddington’s not like that”, he says. “He looks for the good in all of us and somehow, he finds it”.
Mr. Brown, a free spirit locked behind fear of adult responsibilities, is the least trusting of Paddington in the beginning. Then he sees the happiness the bear has brought his family. Paddington’s authentic acceptance teaches the children to be confident in who they are and what they like. Mrs. Brown finds inspiration for her stories in the curious paths he leads the family down. Even Mr. Brown rediscovers his old passion for thrillseeking. If Paddington can find the good in a middle management prude he could probably find it in anyone.
One of the most powerful and optimistic moments comes towards the end of Paddington 2. Leading up to it, the other inmates convince Paddington to escape prison with them by lying that they would help clear his name. When Knuckles reveals that they really intend to flee to another country Paddington is visibly let down. I can’t say many of us would be this shocked if an escaped prisoner lied to us. This could’ve been a moment where the film tries to teach Paddington “the danger of being too trusting”. But this is Paddington gosh darn Brown we’re talking about. He doesn’t trust in others for nothing.
He believes that his family will stick up for him, and they do. Along the way he even got a hand from the garbage collector, a fellow immigrant he helped study for his citizenship test. Then at the last moment, the escaped inmates realise they can’t let their friend down. Knowing they’ll be sent back to prison they turn the plane around and rescue Paddington, because doing the right thing is worth getting in trouble for. In a way Knuckles and the gang are the heroes of Paddington 2, and for that they’re recognised as changed men and allowed to live freely and bake cakes. I don’t think there could be a more profound payoff to Paddington’s trust and kindness than his ability to warm the hearts of the people deemed least desirable by society.
The Paddington films know the world is in a dark place right now. At the same time they believe that it can be changed. They depict the world how it is, and bit by bit young Paddington transforms it into the way it should be. The Paddington films come off as wishful in a childlike way, but maybe that’s the wisest thing we can be. To see the bad things in the world and to still have the strength to believe our best and most pure instincts can change it. Maybe we can’t fix the world, but if we’re kind and polite we can sure as heck make things a little better.
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