I recently claimed that Paddington (2014, dir. Paul King) and Paddington 2 (2017, dir. Paul King) is the best film duology of the 21st century. This perfectly reasonable statement of fact was met with incredulous chuckles from some. While it seems extraordinary to need to prove something so obvious – do we really need an essay verifying that the sky is blue or that hot chips are the best food? – this essay will remove any doubt.
However, in order to substantiate my claim, we must consider the duology’s three integral features. Firstly, the Paddington films must be examined – a textual analysis, as well as their production and critical reception. Secondly, the concept of ‘best’ in art must be defined. And finally, by comparing this definition of ‘best’ to Paddington and other film duologies of the 21st century (particularly those marketed to children),I will prove without shadow of a doubt that Paddington is the best film duology since 2000, and I will fight anyone who disagrees.
To fully appreciate the magnificence of Paddington, one must first place the films in historical context of the character. The character was first introduced to the world in the Michael Bonds’ children’s book “A Bear Called Paddington”, published on 13 October 1958 (Riley, 2008). However, the character’s creation can be traced to Christmas Eve 1956, when Bond bought a last-minute Christmas gift for his wife, “a small toy bear left alone on a shelf in Selfridges store” (About, 2016). This lonely bear inspired Bond, who was a BBC cameraman at the time, to write about a polite young refugee bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ and his adventures in his new home, London. Paddington Brown (named by his adoptive family for the railway station where he was found) has since been featured in over twenty children’s books written by Bond (Recent Publications, 2018), three different television shows from the 1970s to 1990s (Television, 2015) and merchandised worldwide as a stuffed teddy bear (Mortimer, 2014). Indeed, Paddington was already world famous when brought to the big screen in 2014 by Harry Potter producer David Heyman and director Paul King (director of cult comedy series The Mighty Boosh). Given Paddington’s prominence, the filmmakers could have easily produced a financial success based on name recognition and parental nostalgia alone. Instead they created cinematic gold on the silver screen.
It goes without saying that audiences and critics have received the Paddington films extremely favourably. I’m going to say it anyway. Paddington premiered in the United Kingdom on 23 November 2014 (Paddington Release Info, 2018) and was an immediate success, topping the box office and earning $8 million (United Kingdom and Ireland and Malta, 2018). With a $55 million budget the film earned an impressive worldwide gross of $268,047,808 (Paddington, 2018). This is somehow less than the $351,266,433 Peter Rabbit made in 2018 (Peter Rabbit, 2018) – proving once again that true genius is often overlooked by audiences in favour of absolute shit. Critically, Paddington has an oustanding 98% favourable score on film review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes (absolutely trouncing Peter Rabbit’s measly 64% – 60% of which are surely pity reviews). In what is surely a sign from the Gods, Paddington 2 had its word premiere on November 5 2017 (Hugh Grant at world premiere of ‘Paddington 2’, 2017) – a perfect date (my birthday) for a perfect movie (Paddington 2). Indeed, by Rotten Tomatoes’ standards, the film can be considered faultless, scoring a perfect 100%. Financially, the sequel slightly underperformed compared to the original, earning $226,882,399 worldwide – but hey, that’s still pretty bloody good and more money than you’ll ever make with a movie, so why all the attitude?
On top of their critical and financial successes, the Paddington films have also been recognised on the awards circuit. Both films were nominated for Outstanding British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay awards at the BAFTA Film awards (Levine, 2015; “Bafta Film Awards 2018: The winners in full”, 2018). Hugh Grant was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Paddington 2, but was overlooked in favour of Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – a decision to jump on the American awards bandwagon that I’m sure haunts the British Film Academy to this day. The Paddington films also received a variety of other awards and nominations but frankly there are too many and I don’t feel like referencing them all. You can research them yourself or you can just believe me. The fact that Paddington 2 was overlooked for the 2019 Academy Awards shouldn’t be seen as a negative – the film could rightly claim every award and there would no need to ever hold the ceremony again. He’s really doing us all a favour. Overall though, it is clear that while award nominations, box office figures and critical reactions are important when discussing a film’s reception, they are not the only indications of quality – or indeed, the concept of ‘best’.
Quality is something of a nebulous term, especially when it comes to artistic endeavours. Wikipedia’s dictionary, the Wiktionary, as it is known (believe it or not), defines quality in a number of ways. The first and most pertinent definition is “level of excellence” (Quality, 2018). The fifth and most unhelpful definition is “In a two-phase liquid–vapor mixture, the ratio of the mass of vapor present to the total mass of the mixture.” I’m afraid this does not help us much at all! Considering quality as a ‘level of excellence’, however, is not that much more beneficial, as the excellence levels must also be defined.
In some areas a level of excellence can easily be distinguished. However, I argue that quality depends heavily on the criteria being assessed. Sport is the obvious example where excellence can be easily determined – you score more points, you throw the thing the furthest, you’re the winner and you’re the champion. However, consider this: Usain Bolt runs the fastest and wins the Olympic 100m sprint. It could be argued that Bolt is the best, or most excellent, runner as he wins the gold medal and bests his peers. Against the criterion of time and order of completion, sure, Bolt is the best. However, if another runner ran more elegantly, and judgement was based on the standard of sophisticated running style, not swiftness, perhaps this other runner would be ascertained the ‘best’ runner. Further, there are countless examples of sporting teams being judged as playing better yet still losing to their opponents, of outplayed teams snatching victory at the last minute – the 2015 NRL Grand Final is a prime example which I have neither the heart nor the stamina to discuss further at this time. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten Paddington. No one ever could. This is all to say that decisions on quality depend on criteria, even in the seemingly more cut and dry arena of sport.
So how does one define what is best in art and more specifically cinema? We have already touched upon box office success, critical reception and award recognition. Clearly these qualities (see what I’m doing?) only tell part of the story. The video essay YouTube channel Now You See It (2016) differentiates good movies from “movies with a legacy” with a specific list of criteria: cinematic influence, wider cultural impact and personal effect. On these counts, Paddington’s esteem cannot be understated. Cinematically, it has provoked imitators in the beloved childhood character reimagined in live action/CGI genre – the aforementioned try-hard Peter Rabbit and the sweet and sombre Christopher Robin. It has also pushed the boundaries of the cinema form, both with its photorealistic representation of Paddington (each individual hair!) and with several inventive stylised sequences, including musical numbers that blur the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic representation as a band appears to perform the song previously thought to be scored. Paddington 2 features a particularly memorable scenewhere an illustrated storybook comes to life and in one long take characters appear in the pop-up book’s pages as they open and close around them. Run of the mill children’s movie this is not.
Culturally, VanDerWerff (2018) outlines Paddington 2’s amazing effect on movie fans on social media, including one user who wrote on Twitter that “I know we make jokes on this website but I’m not kidding: Paddington makes me want to be a better person, friend, neighbor, brother, son.” Sure, Film Twitter talking feverishly about a movie isn’t exactly proof of the widest cultural impact, but it does speak to personal effect. These films impact people, including VanDerWerff’s fellow audience members “who 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.” Even now, just over a year after Paddington 2’s release, a cursory search on Twitter for Paddington produces thousands of recent responses praising the film detailing the impression it left on viewers (and some people talking about the railway station in London). Importantly, the films are not just popular with kids or with adults, but with everyone. Not every film bridges this divide (Peter “64%” Rabbit).
Now You See It (2016) admits that the personal effect a film stimulates in audiences is difficult to gauge. However, he argues “movies can tell us more about how to live our lives more than the real world” citing examples such as Juno and its accessible yet nuanced exploration of abortion. In this way, Now You See It is not merely saying a film is great if it provokes a personal reaction in the audience. The personal effect the film has is its lasting impression; how it fundamentally changes the audience. Indeed, when introduced his list of the top ten greatest films, the celebrated film reviewer Roger Ebert (1991) wrote “If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it’s an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another.” While I cannot speak for everyone, it is essential that I list the ways the Paddington films have moved me.
Now, there are plenty reasons why I love the Paddington films. The colourful stylised sets, the previously mentioned visually inventive sequences, the wonderful slapstick humour, the foreshadowing and call-back jokes. I appreciate the brisk, efficient storytelling and the performances from every single actor (particularly Hugh Grant, who sincerely delivers the best performance of his, and indeed anyone’s, career). I savour that we have family films that recognise that pain and tragedy occur but also that they pass. I adore the Paddington’sallegory as a refugee, especially in post-Brexit Britain, and how the second film especially places this immigrant as the lynchpin of a diverse community. Notice Windsor Gardens falls apart without Paddington, literally greying over as characters bicker and fall out of sync with the world? And at the same time Paddington is literally bringing colour and life to the prison, coaxing compassion and humility from rough, closed off men? The fact that Paddington improves the inmates’ lives with food, the universal language of love, is no coincidence. I tried a marmalade sandwich because of Mr Paddington Brown, and while I can’t say I enjoyed it, I don’t blame Paddington. I blame the real world for not aiming up to his. A compelling story, memorable characters, and beautiful cinematography – these things are all very important, but plenty of good movies have them. Yet I’m not spending my limited free time and ignoring my fiancé, Senaai to write about just any films.
Here is my submission: What makes Paddington and Paddington 2 the best film duology of the 21st century is that they make you a better person. Films are outrageous artistic endeavours. They’re a fun way to spend two hours whiling away our scant time on earth. At their core, the movies are entertainment. But, as my main man Roger Ebert (2005) famously argued, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts… The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.” I defy anyone to watch the Paddington films without improving as a human being. And this profound impact essentially comes down to the empathy generated by our furry hero. Paddington, although a bear, showcases the very best of humanity. He is presented with indescribable misfortune – the death of family members, the destruction of his home, prejudice as a refugee in a new country – yet he is unfailingly positive. Paddington encounters new situations with optimism and although he often finds himself in trouble, he always tries his best to correct his mistakes. Even when facing mortal peril, he places other’s needs ahead of his own. He is always thinking of others – the second films plot centres around Paddington’s desire to buy Aunt Lucy the perfect birthday present. He is never nasty or rude, and will always find something encouraging to say about every person and situation. As Mr Brown points out, “Paddington looks for the good in all of us and somehow he finds it.” Paddington 2 could not demonstrate this more clearly when Paddington is wrongly sent to prison, yet finds friends and reintroduces happiness in all the previously bad-tempered inmates. Our boy is never angry, only disappointed in the impolite choices others make. Pray you never forget your manners, lest you be subject to one of Paddington’s infamous hard stares, which do not serve to punish, only to remind the recipient to do better in the future.
Paddington’s motto, as taught by Aunty Lucy, and which I hope becomes a creed around the world, is simple: “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” How amazing is that? How terrifyingly simple is this solution for world peace? Has any film’s theme, the central controlling idea that the film wants you to believe, ever been so pure and told with such striking emotional truth? We can never aim up of course. Even writing this essay, I have sinned, for I have repeatedly hung shit on Peter Rabbit, something my lord and saviour Paddington would never do. I’m sorry Paddington. I am not worthy! By empathising with Paddington, by experiencing his empathy to others, we are given a glimpse of a better world. A better way forward for the human (or bear) race. We are fundamentally changed.
Now, I know you’re thinking the essay should be over now. We’re over 2000 words in, surely this has gone on too long? Not yet, I’m afraid, because I have not yet addressed a critical part of my original contention. I did not just claim that Paddington and Paddington 2 are great films, that they should be essential viewing for every single person, that I will lay down my life for that bear – I argued that these films were the best duology of the 21st century. This necessarily calls for an investigation of other two-film franchises since 2001. So strap in, we’ve got at least another 800 words left.
So it turns out there are lot more film duologies from the last 18 years than you’d expect. While I would love to watch all of them in order to make this essay as accurate as possible, I just don’t have the time. This is difficult, as I would never want to pass judgement on a film that I haven’t seen. Regardless, I believe I can immediately discount a bunch of duologies based on the fact that I haven’t heard of them or that there is no critical acclaim or fan “buzz” about them. The 28 Days Later films, for example, have positive reviews (the first more so than the second) and I would love to watch them sometime – but is anyone out there calling them life changing? I forgot they even made a Percy Jackson film, let alone two! 300 had a sequel and that’s all most people can say about it. Apparently there was a Mean Girls sequel? The Amazing Spider-Man films, while arguably not that bad,were so ineffective that within five years we’ve had two more live-action Spider-Man films, plus an outstanding animated movie and Spider-Man appearing in two Avengers films. Five years!
So, it’s fair to say that most duologies of the 21st century aren’t going to aim up to Paddington. That seems fair. For perspective, IMDB (2018) currently has 505,380 movies in its database, and the Paddingtons are definitely in the top five. So what about the 21st century duologies that could claim to match Paddington’s greatness? I’ve narrowed it down to three extremely well respected non-animated, non-family-marketed series. Firstly, I’ve always heard good things about The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014, both dir. Gareth Evans), and again, without seeing it I will never really know if it’s better than Paddington. From what I understand, they are wonderful action films with sharp fight choreography, but I would require more compelling evidence that they would defeat Paddington in a fight. He’s a goddamn bear, people. Nature’s apex predator. John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017, both dir. Chad Stahelski) are also critical darlings and are worth examining. I have seen the first John Wick so I can safely say it slaps, but while I appreciated its stylishness, it hasn’t overtaken my life like a small brown bear from Peru. Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004) also have their proponents, (what is it with action film series having two entries this century?) but I just can’t see them taking Paddington’s crown.
I am not claiming that action films are inherently inferior. I believe any film of any genre can be wonderful, and more to the point, a good action film can hold its own against the best drama or musical. Along the same lines, Senaai might make a case for some of the classic chick flick duologies of the early 00s – Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde, The Princess Diaries – to which I say… I have only seen the first Legally Blonde recently, which was excellent. All of these films are wonderful. The fact that any film exists is a joy and miracle. I could compare the critical reception and the box office receipts of these other duologies, I could conduct a close textual analysis of the narrative, themes and character development, I could research the hell out of each film.
But I won’t. Not because I’ve already spent far too long on this, let’s face it, over the top response to someone dismissing the Paddington films. But because there’s just no point. There’s on clear challenger when it comes to film duologies of the 21st century – perhaps of all time. Besides, when you’ve proven something so clearly already, how many times can you do it again? Once you’ve proven that water’s wet, how many times do you have to prove that it’s not dry?
I wholeheartedly believe that, based on the criteria I judged Paddington against – critical reception, awards recognition, audience adoration, any definition of quality you can think of – plus my own clear and deep-seated biases – nothing will ever compare to the kind and gentle Paddington Brown.
So, go ahead. Compare Paddington to other duologies of the 21st century. Compare it to any duology ever. Compare it to the very best films of all time. Compare it to the greatest achievements of mankind.
Paddington is still the best. A reminder of all that is good in the world, an inspiration for how humanity can live and work together. Funny, sad and brilliant in all the right places. Moving, inspiring, captivating. His level of excellence cannot be surpassed.
The irony to all of this is that Paddington wouldn’t want to be compared. He wouldn’t want to be pitted against anyone else. He wouldn’t want to be the best.
Paddington would just be happy that you even thought of him. That you would even take the time to watch his little films. But that’s why he is the best. Pure, innocent, devoid of sin. Everything that we must try and yes, sometimes fail to be.
The best films. The best achievement of humankind. The best bear.
This has taken me months to write. Not because it was difficult but because I could barely (bearly!) find the time between work and other projects. I’m glad it’s over now and I can add my voice to the millions around the world, beating the drum for the melody that is Paddington.
I enjoyed every minute of writing this and it’s really proven to me that writing – whether it’s critically, humorously, a combination of both, or especially creatively, is what makes me happy. It’s something I need to do.
It’s what Paddington would want.
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