I didn’t grow up with Paddington. I come from a different cultural background, so nobody ever read these books to me, nor did I have a personal stuffed rendition of this apparent icon to sleep with as a child. And even though I have resided in the UK for long enough to become aware of Paddington’s existence in the cultural sphere, I’d like to say that I was going to watch Paddington and Paddington 2 relatively unbiased.
I don’t necessarily want to review these films formally here. What I am interested in exploring is a strange social disconnect I observed after admitting to not being a fan of either of these films. Usually – and this is backed up by years of experience in dispensing bizarre takes on movies – after sharing a controversial opinion on any film, I would encounter some kind of response. Someone would call me an idiot, someone would attempt to show me the error of my ways by condescending me into liking what they feel everyone should like, someone would re-share my take and make fun of me and there would be some who would give me the proverbial thumbs-up. In other words, I would experience some kind of engagement. Not this time, though. This time I felt as though I had farted in a church.
Moreover, when I started trawling the Internet in search for reviews to read, I found – unsurprisingly – that not only are these films nearly universally adored, they are loved in a rather peculiar way. Normally, even a cursory look at Letterboxd will yield at least a handful of compelling observations that actually pertain to the substance of the film in question. People would pass comments about the acting, direction, maybe even point to specific scenes which interrogate the film’s thematic aspirations particularly well. Therefore, I was quite surprised to find that apart from a few choice comments highlighting the production design and costuming, the absolute vast majority of reviews for either of the two Paddington movies did not engage with the movie itself. Instead, these reviews would specifically address the way in which these movies made the reviewers feel; they would reminisce about their childhood, wax poetic about the bear’s significance as a role model in their formative years, or comment upon the general charm and positivity emanating from the films. But nobody would venture any deeper to ask why this marmalade-addicted beacon of wholesomeness is so great. He is great because he’s charming and he’s charming because he’s great. Paddington’s greatness is axiomatic.
I have absolutely no problems with the idea of loving films based purely on nostalgia or charm. We like what we like and I totally respect that. What interests me is the idea that Paddington movies seem to have this unique property of being liked exclusively for ineffable reasons. They are not loved in a way most other beloved classics are adored. For example, even though It’s a Wonderful Life is nearly universally liked, often for nostalgic and emotional reasons, many people have attempted a more down-to-earth analysis of what makes this movie great. Granted, Capra’s classic has had a nearly seven-decades-worth head start in this regard, but it doesn’t take a genius to notice that Paddington is treated differently. This bear from Darkest Peru is not loved the way Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is loved; he is loved the way a deity is loved. Universally, unconditionally, unquestionably and very personally. And it also comes with familiar ramifications.
If we entertain this hypothesis for a second and assume that Paddington is a god, then a lot of what I have been observing will start making sense. Nobody ever asks why Jesus should be loved and what makes him a role model worth following. In fact, the idea of questioning the basic tenets of any religion is immediately met with militant pushback, because it is conveniently written into standard operating procedures of most religious communities that asking too many questions is considered sinful, which naturally nips any form of cultural dissent in the bud. The same holds true (to an extent) when admitting to not liking Paddington movies. You immediately feel shunned and ostracized because nobody in their right mind would want to risk being seen with a religious dissenter. And – heavens forbid – God himself might notice your abhorrent and blasphemous behaviour and he (or she; who knows, right?) might decide to strike you down right then and there, so it is simply safer to treat such religious malcontents as though they had leprosy or something. After all, nobody wants to be hit by a divine lightning because God might believe in guilt by association. In any case, admitting to not having been touched by the charm of either of the Paddington movies felt eerily similar to what I felt when I figured out I was an atheist in an exquisitely religious community, which leads me to believe I can’t be too far off the mark with my hypothesis that Paddington bear is not just a regular bear and that he might be in fact a god.
After all, Paddington seemingly fulfils similar needs. His mere existence brings a fundamental feeling of safety. He reaffirms people’s hope for humanity. He brings folks together. His actions and personal code are rooted in basic goodness and can be referred to as a fundamental guidance for harmonious living. For all intents and purposes, Paddington isn’t just like Jesus; he is Jesus. Hence, he is untouchable. It is simply unsavoury to even hint at a possibility he has flaws or that the Gospel of Paddington has pacing problems, plot holes or one-dimensional characters. After all, when we assume Paddington is Jesus, then the stories in which he features are no longer works of literature, but Word of God – immune to any form of criticism.
This explains both why reviews of Paddington films are bizarrely non-specific and why I feel completely disconnected from the idea of unquestionable praise towards this divine bear. I was not indoctrinated into this cult at a young age and I have survived for nearly three decades in complete ignorance of its existence. Granted, as I have been told by some of my friends whose opinions I treat with utmost respect, it isn’t a requirement. One can find the bear later in life much in the way some people find God when they are fully formed adults. And in all fairness, it’s great Paddington has become this nearly religious beacon of wholesomeness for so many people. It is a generally a good idea to be nice and positive and having something positive to latch onto can bring great benefits to one’s wellbeing, especially nowadays when the world has changed so drastically. I just don’t think I need a bear with an untreated marmalade problem to show me the way, much like I didn’t need Jesus to do it either.
Come to think of it, maybe it is also a generational thing. Sure, Paddington is universally beloved by boomers and GenZ-ers alike, but I would be willing to bet that the older you are, the bigger the chances your connection to Paddington is underpinned by childhood nostalgia. It is honestly a fascinating possibility that a good proportion of young adult audiences resonate with the bear thanks to the universal traits found in their generation. After all, it is documented that today’s early-twenty-somethings are more emotionally aware, compassionate and socially switched-on than millennials. They have the Paddington gene encoded in their fundamental makeup. Therefore, it might be appropriate to henceforth refer to Paddington as a Generation Z Jesus, or Gen-Zee-sus for short. However, given how militant and ‘cultish’ some folks get when confronted with any form of Paddington thoughtcrime, he might also be closer to L. Ron Hu-bear-d.