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Why Paddington Bear is the old-fashioned hero our kids need right now

Paddington Bear

Warner Bros. Pictures

Paul Asay - published on 01/13/18

In this moment of history, marked by forgotten values, 'Paddington 2' feels very timely indeed.

As a rule, bears are not the best houseguests.

Most are large. Few are housebroken. They don’t care a whit about your antique knick-knack collection, but do have a serious interest in your pantry. They’ll eat all your food if you let them. Heck, if you’re not careful, they just might eat you.

Paddington Bear is smaller than some, and he has little interest in eating his hosts. But even so, he’s rather hard on his adopted family and their collective home. As chronicled in 15 story collections by Michael Bond (who died last year) and in a pair of well-received movies — 2014’s Paddington and this year’s newly released Paddington 2 — he floods bathrooms, ruins meals, gets arrested, and is forever getting lost.

And yet, as Paddington 2 illustrates, Paddington is not only a bear who I’d invite for a spot of marmalade, but one who I’d call a real, genuine inspiration — a hero positioned to rescue us from a certain 21st-century malaise we’ve fallen into. Let me tell you why …

He’s unfailingly polite

In the first movie, Paddington’s beloved Aunt Lucy sends the bear off to London with two bits of advice: “Remember your manners, and keep safe.”

Paddington doesn’t always mind the second bit, as both movies amply show. But he’s never forgotten the first. He’s always quick with a “please” and “thank you.” He uses marks of courtesy where appropriate — a “Mr.” or “Mrs.” He’s a fantastic listener.

It’s fitting that Paddington’s main foil in Paddington 2, Phoenix Buchanan (played by Hugh Grant), is a preening, self-centered actor who thinks about nothing but himself.

“Paddington has a very clear set of old-fashioned values he learned from his Aunt Lucy in Peru,” director Paul King says in the film notes. “He is always kind and polite, and looks for the good in everyone. They’ve stood him in good stead at home and made him a popular figure in the neighborhood. But we wanted to see how kindness and compassion stand up in a wider, more cynical world — and if, when the chips are down, people are prepared to think the worst of the outsider.”

We, naturally, live in a pretty cynical world ourselves. Look to Washington, to Hollywood, to Smalltown, U.S.A. and you’ll get the feeling that we’re increasingly more inclined to call each other enemies than find a way to be friends. Facebook feeds can be digital war zones. Twitter can be an avalanche of mockery and vitriol. Last weekend, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, took home a bevy of Golden Globes, and it seemed only fitting: It was, perhaps, the angriest movie in recent memory.

In contrast, King explains that Paddington adheres to a “set of old-fashioned values,” but those values are a beautiful — and I think inspirational — counterpoint to the horrific attitudes our culture has seemingly slipped into. Courtesy never goes out of style. If only our politicians, celebrities and neighbors all grew up heeding their own versions of Aunt Lucy, we might be living in a kinder, more tolerable world.

He tries to do the right thing — always

In the latest movie, Paddington is determined to buy a special pop-up book of London for Aunt Lucy — something she can read while wiling away the hours in Lima’s Home for Retired Bears. So he takes up several odd jobs to make money for this very special gift.

But not everyone cares to do things the right way. Buchanan also has a hankering for the book, and so he steals it. Alas, authorities assume that Paddington is the thief, and he’s thrown into the clink.

Now, if you’re not a particularly bad person when you land in prison, you might be by the time you get out. Hanging out with a bunch of criminals isn’t exactly the best of environments for self-improvement. But despite all sorts of experiences that would turn a lesser bear bitter and cynical, Paddington never stops following his moral compass. He shows us that doing the right things for the right reasons is often harder but always what we should do. Even if our ethical deeds aren’t rewarded right away, the choices we make when we think no one’s looking tell volumes about what sort of people we are.

He attempts to make people around him better

Yes, Paddington is unfailingly polite. But that doesn’t mean the diminutive bear is a pushover. Indeed, he has a special weapon in his arsenal, first unveiled in Bond’s 1958 book A Bear Called Paddington:

“Paddington had  a very persistent stare when he cared to use it,” Bond writes. “It was a very powerful stare. One which his Aunt Lucy had taught him and which he kept for special occasions.”

We see that stare in the first movie, when Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) suggests that Paddington has been lying about certain aspects of his life. The stare makes Mr. Brown exceedingly uncomfortable. “My aunt taught me to do it when people had forgotten their manners.”

Mr. Brown says that “Paddington looks for the good in all of us, and somehow … he finds it.” That trait, in itself, helps make the people around him better. As parents and teachers know, when we show faith in people — when we treat them as valued — those people respond well. They want to live up to your expectations.

But as parents and teachers also know, there are times for a good, hard stare, too. We must all be willing to look not just for the good in a situation, but the truth in that situation — even if it’s uncomfortable.

Says Paddington 2 Producer David Heyman, “It’s … about seeing the good in places where others might not. And sometimes … seeing the bad where others have only been charmed. That’s an important message, in a world where we’re all a little too willing to judge a book by its cover.”

According to Heyman, one of the greatest inspirations for Paddington 2 was Frank Capra’s classic movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a young idealist who must navigate the political muck of the Beltway and find a way to do something good.

“There is something wonderfully optimistic about Paddington which, in these times, feels as relevant as ever,” he adds. “His honesty, his sense of right and wrong, his ability to see the good in others and to make the world a better place for most everyone he encounters — these values are timeless.”

They are indeed timeless. And in this moment of history when sometimes it seems we’ve forgotten those values, Paddington Bear feels very timely indeed.

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