The Paddington Movies Are A (Very Polite) Takedown Of British Colonialism And Xenophobia

Ah, Paddington — the little Peruvian-British bear who single-handedly distributes serotonin to the masses every few years. Thankfully, it's been confirmed that the hotly anticipated "Paddington 3" will begin shooting by the end of 2022, meaning that the charming little bear is effectively en-route to warm our hearts (and stimulate our tear ducts) once more.

Though Paul King, who brilliantly helmed the first two "Paddington" installments, won't be involved in the forthcoming film, it's still safe to say that this news is exciting nonetheless. While we patiently await the latest tale of a marmalade-snarfing bear and the Brown family that takes him in as their own, it feels high time to dissect the larger themes that loom over the franchise, particularly in regards to the lingering effects of British colonialism and intolerance.

"Discovered" by a British explorer who ventures into "Darkest Peru," Paddington himself is an immigrant — and as such, must grapple with the U.K.'s enduring racism and xenophobia, which is inextricably tied to its status as a former colonial empire. Though the films never explicitly promote a political agenda, their message is completely discernible: In embracing our own differences — whether ethnic, racial, or simple idiosyncratic quirks — we are better able to accept the differences of others. This leads to a robust community built on mutual aid and varied experiences where we're all able to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses — areas where we can help, and be helped in return. Though the age-old adage of "treat others how you would want to be treated" is hardly revolutionary, casually confronting the current malaise of reactionary racism and cultural purity certainly is ... especially when coming from a very polite little bear.

Let's wade through how the "Paddington" films (oh, believe me, they're Films) craftily tackle this topic, making the world (and the oft-inane children's entertainment landscape) a better place for us all.

Britain's Colonial Past

If high school history continues to serve us, we know that Britain's empire never reached as far as Latin America — though it did colonize multiple Caribbean islands and much of North America. While Paddington hails from "Darkest Peru," it might seem like a bit of a stretch to condemn British exploits in Peru when the two countries' connection is tenuous at best. In reality, Spain is the former colonizer of Peru, with independence of the South American country having been claimed in 1821 via the famous Argentinian General and liberator José de San Martín.

However, the insertion of "Darkest Peru" in the original "Paddington" books was actually a last-minute revision. Initially, Paddington was to hail from "Darkest Africa" — an overtly racist characterization meant to more accurately reflect the former reach of the British Empire and its then-ongoing dissipation. The first "Paddington" book, "A Bear Called Paddington," was penned by creator Michael Bond and published in 1958. During this time, the British decolonization of Africa was getting underway — a process meant to avoid the ongoing revolution Algerians were fighting against their French colonizers, which lasted eight grueling years from 1954 through 1962 until the victory of the Algerians. This decolonization process is particularly significant due to the fact that both Britain and France held the largest number of colonies in Africa, though most Western nations planted a flag in one territory or another on the continent. British decolonization was done gradually, with Ghana becoming the first African nation to gain independence from the country in 1957, and the former empire releasing its last vestige (now known as Zimbabwe) in 1980.

Though Britain began the decolonization effort while the Algerian battle for independence was still raging on, the presence of Africa in the first "Paddington" children's book ended up getting cut. But rather than reasons concerning the racism and tastelessness of having the bear hail from "Darkest Africa," the book's publisher instead pushed back simply because bears aren't native to the continent. After Bond did some additional research, he decided to have Paddington come from Peru — a country that does indeed host bears, though it hasn't ever honored the Union Jack. While this muddles the colonial scope of the franchise, it doesn't hinder the central tension inherent to the small bear's plight. As an immigrant in Britain, Paddington is subject to misguidance, misunderstanding and mistreatment. It's up to his newfound community of Londoners to embrace the young bear and make him feel welcome. It is not on Paddington to "assimilate;" it's on Brits to stop being so ethnocentric and stuffy and stop looking a gorgeous little gift bear in the mouth.

The "Threat" of Multiculturalism

The themes present in "Paddington" also represent an ongoing cultural anxiety felt among contemporary Brits. The memory of the empire — which only finally "dissolved" during the tail end of the 20th century — has instilled an inflated sense of importance among some factions of the white British population, and the belief that "multiculturalism" threatens this once-coveted status continues to put a wrench in efforts toward equality. This is exemplified in the "Paddington" films through the character of Mr. Curry (played by iconic screen actor Peter Capaldi), who monitors his precious neighborhood of Windsor Gardens with a sense of misplaced vigilantism — and as such is appalled when the Peruvian bear moves in with the Brown family. It's clear that to Mr. Curry, a "safe" neighborhood is one where everything (and everyone) is homogenous, a concept which "that bear" threatens to interrupt.

Mr. Curry is in fact a stand-in for a concept that British-Pakistani feminist scholar Sara Ahmed has written about extensively. In her landmark 2007 essay "Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness," she highlights a then-recent BBC series called "The Happiness Formula" — specifically, an episode about how the communities we reside in contribute to individual and collective contentment.

The programme argues not only that happy communities are communities that have a strong social bond, but also that the bond of such communities is based on 'being alike;' communities are happier if they are alike. Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights in the UK, is interviewed during this episode. Phillips claims that "multicultural communities tend to be less trusting and less happy," and that "people frankly, when there are other pressures, like to love in a comfort zone which is defined by racial sameness," and even that "people feel happy if they are with people like themselves." The argument is simple at one level: being amongst people with whom you are alike will cause happiness, and being amongst people from whom you differ will cause unhappiness.

This pervasive (though extremely archaic) belief among white Brits — that communities centered on racial sameness are somehow more utopian — is demonstrated in its absurdity throughout the first "Paddington" film. Of course, this isn't ever presented as an issue based on race, but rather on species. Mr. Curry is intensely suspicious of Paddington's every action; his mere presence at Windsor Gardens a veritable "threat" to the safety of its human inhabitants. In fact, Millicent (Nicole Kidman) — the daughter of the explorer who originally encountered Paddington's aunt and uncle in Peru before returning to Britain — manipulates this distrust on Mr. Curry's part, involving him as a pawn in her scheme to kidnap and kill the bear so that she can stuff him and display him in the Museum of Natural History as a way to preserve her father's legacy. 

At first, Mr. Curry is just giddy that someone else seems to feel the bear is as odious as he does. But by the time he realizes that instead of a simple excommunication, Paddington is being shuttled off to meet his untimely demise, it's already too late to re-evaluate his moral stance. This is often how heinous acts are able to escalate—in rallying over a common enemy, the punishment that feels appropriate for one infiltrating a space of sameness will invariably increase in intensity. Anyone who aids in the stigmatization of a person solely based on their background or appearance is ultimately complicit in whatever injustice is carried out against them, a fact that Mr. Curry surely should have realized earlier. 

The Constant Policing of Others

"Paddington 2" takes this idea even further, placing the blame not only on British citizens who uphold personal prejudices, but on the entire institution of policing others in general. As opposed to critiquing the inhumane treatment of prisoners (which would be quite incongruous with its PG rating), the film humanizes those behind bars — which happens to include our beloved little bear himself. Framed for stealing a rare antique book from Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), Paddington's fate is sealed when the judge presiding over his case happens to be the same man he once gave a particularly bad haircut to. Sent to a cold, dank prison and separated from the Browns, Paddington is immediately made aware of the depressing state of his new surroundings. His fellow inmates are miserable, eating terrible food and constantly fearing for their safety.

Of course, Paddington's eternal pleasantness cuts right through the hostile environment. In no time, the prisoners are being fed a steady stream of pink pastries to match their pink uniforms (a laundry mishap on Paddington's part that immediately brightens up the place) and are being read nightly bedtime stories by the warden. Clearly, none of these people are "bad" — perhaps like Paddington, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had a prejudiced judge, or perhaps committed a crime out of sheer desperation. There's no background given on what these men were incarcerated for, which is a refreshing departure from most narratives surrounding incarcerated people. Instead of reducing these individuals to the crimes they committed or their status as "innocent" or "guilty," we simply see their personhood — solidifying the idea that incarcerated people are just as deserving of the autonomy of personhood and personality that the rest of society is automatically afforded.

Paddington quickly becomes friends with many of these inmates as soon as the prison conditions are made infinitely more livable, but even his own family still casts a shadow of judgment over these connections. When visiting Paddington to discuss the suspected shadowy figure who framed him, the Brown family hands over a few sketches to the bear's fellow prisoners — an action met with immense distaste by Mr. Brown, who spews hurtful rhetoric freely when he believes he's shut off the microphone, but has actually just flipped the switch for the light.

"We can't trust these people! I mean, look at them. Talk about a rogue's gallery. Hideous. And as for that bearded baboon in the middle, he's hardly got two brain cells to rub together."

After he's done, the "bearded baboon" Knuckles (an amazing Brendan Gleeson) calmly replies: "We can still hear you, Mr. Brown." Clearly embarrassed that his words have fallen on the ears of those he was so cruelly deriding, it's evident that Mr. Brown has made a jerk of himself — with the audience fully comprehending that his baseless characterization of these men couldn't be farther from the truth. For many prisoners, the complexities of their interior lives are reduced to their status as an inmate, meaning that society predicates their worth only on their "guiltiness," never on their humanity.

The similarities between the first two films are rooted in this idea of surveillance as a tool of colonial power — whether by keeping Paddington behind museum glass or prison bars, he's separated from society so that his "otherness" doesn't conflict with the uniformity of British culture. Yet what the film makes clear is that everyone who interacts with Paddington is made the better for it, principally because the kindness he affords everyone spreads kindness in return. By that logic, baselessly loathing someone due to their difference will only spread malice and distrust among a community.

"If we're kind and polite, the world will be right."

Here it is, the phrase that sums up the ethos of the entire "Paddington" franchise: "If we are kind and polite, the world will be right."

Paddington credits his Aunt Lucy as having imparted this saying onto him — another example of how embracing kindness and tolerance imbues not only a community, but a subsequent generation with generosity and joy. Raised outside of the confines of contemporary England, Paddington embraces every facet of his new life in London with eagerness — though he might not always get things "right," he is nonetheless engaging in a different culture with wide-eyed interest, a lesson most Brits he encounters could take to heart (like Judy learning to "speak bear," or the entire community banding together to bring Paddington's beloved Aunt Lucy to visit him in London).

From Bond's original books to the films directed by King, there are hints of Britain's colonial past and intolerant present within each "Paddington" film. While these truths are always revealed in a manner that feels subtle and easy to swallow, they are still totally effective in teaching viewers young and old about the dreadful internalized intolerances that we have likely inherited — from past generations, from our country's past (and enduring) actions, from the media we consume.

Hopefully the third installment of the "Paddington" film series will continue to challenge the preconceived notions that society unduly places upon those who are different, whether the difference is predicated on race, ethnicity, or perhaps even species. Sure, there are some reductive aspects to the series (namely, that stand-ins for immigrants and people of color in animated media tend to skew non-human) yet Paddington is such a wholesome, impossibly kind being that he radiates goodness upon each and every Londoner he crosses paths with — many of them themselves being immigrants and non-white residents of the metropolis. In making Paddington so unbelievably perfect, the rest of us feel nearly perfect for just loving him. If we can feel good about ourselves for loving a fictional bear, maybe we can feel good about spreading that positivity to our communities, decidedly embracing difference instead of rejecting it.