I had read a lot of things about the new Paddington Bear film before sitting down on Saturday in the local cinema to watch it: that it had a pro-immigration subtext, that it was anti-UKIP propaganda, that it was an attempt by the liberal cognoscenti to brainwash little ones throughout the western world to believe in multiculturalism. I figured everyone was probably exaggerating.
Actually, the film is pretty much a straight up allegory about xenophobia and its negative effect, using a CGI bear as a proxy. I take this time now to alert you to the fact that this review has spoilers galore. So here it is, big and bold: SPOILER ALERT.
That out of the way, here we go. An English explorer goes to darkest Peru and discovers a family of bears who are hyper intelligent. They even begin to learn some English words before he leaves them. He returns to London to share his findings and is mocked – the point of his expedition was to bring home some “specimens”, not tell them all about the wonders of the natives. The explorer repeats how “civilised” the bears were, but the London set don’t want to hear about it. How civilised could they have been, it is asked? They probably don’t play cricket or drink proper tea. They probably don’t even speak English. The explorer is shunned.
His daughter makes it her life’s work to recover from her father’s shame by becoming a vivisectionist of rare animals. This part, played by Nicole Kidman, is clearly meant to be the embodiment of fascism. She wears a lot of leather and looks Aryan as possible; shy of using actual Nazi symbols, it couldn’t be more clear to the adults watching what she is meant to represent.
There is an earthquake in the forest where Paddington lives and so he comes to London to find the explorer who visited his family all those years ago. He is taken in, rather reluctantly on the part of the father of the family, by the Browns, a middle class bunch who live in Notting Hill. They have a next-door neighbour who immediately takes against Paddington, telling the bear at one point, “I don’t want to hear any of that jungle music neither!” If it wasn’t clear to us already, Paddington is meant to symbolise every immigrant.
The most metaphorical portion of the film is when Kidman finally gets her hands on Paddington, having seduced the xenophobic next-door neighbour (I should add here, played wonderfully by Peter Capaldi). She’s placing him in a van with the word “taxidermy” written on the side of it. Capaldi runs out to ask in horror if she means to kill the bear. She replies that of course she does; what did he think she was going to do? He says he just wanted the bear off the street, he didn’t want him to die. She laughs in his face. It represents the moment at which those who moaned about “the immigrants, not in a racist way mind you”, and flirted with the far-right enough to give that faction some political power, realise the nightmare scenario they have unwittingly helped to create.
So yes, “Paddington” has a political intent. And you know what? I’m very cool with that. Because if liberalism is going to get shat on from all directions, I’m glad to see it fighting back. If my kids are at some point inevitably going to get at least partially indoctrinated with a several thousand year old book filled with genocide and incest as moral parables, and teaches us that the death sentence is an appropriate way to deal with those who eat shellfish, then having my child watch a film in which the lesson is that it is okay to like people no matter where they’re from I will take as collateral damage.
Oh yes, my child. She loved it, every second. At the very end, when Paddington is taken in by the Browns on a permanent basis, I looked over and saw her crying. I asked her if she was okay. She told me, in that inimitable way that three year olds have, that she was “only sad because she’s so happy. I’m so happy that Paddington found some people to live with who love him.” I don’t feel the need to add any comment on that quote.
One last thing: this whole idea being put round that the film is “anti-UKIP propaganda” is bizarre in the extreme. The movie, as I think I’ve demonstrated, is pretty clear in its messaging. Is UKIP finally throwing in the towel on the whole “we’re not xenophobic, we just need to have a rational discussion about immigration” and coming out of the closet? Because if you think the film is anti-UKIP, you are basically owning up to the idea that UKIP are a bunch of xenophobes at the very least. And if they want to use a kids film about a bear to demonstrate that, that’s also cool with me.