Essays · Movies

What ‘Paddington’ Gets Right About Adoption

A deep exploration of one of the most brilliant things about the ‘Paddington’ franchise.
Paddington Prison
By  · Published on March 23rd, 2018

“We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith — a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.” – Jennifer Michael Hecht

Paddington 1 and 2, directed by Paul King and based on the series of children’s book Paddington Bear by Michael Bond, bear (pun intended) similarities that compliment each other in a symbiotic way. Paddington 1 establishes a world imbued with “magical realism.” It’s a world full of charm and admittedly stylized things (talking, bipedal bears) that are grounded in truths. Its central thesis is “If we are polite and kind, the world will be right.”

The movie’s opening shows footage from the intrepid geographer and explorer Montgomery Clyde’s (Tim Downie) expedition into the deepest jungles of Peru. Clyde was tasked with exploring the terrain and bringing back a “sample” (killing whatever he encounters and bringing its corpse back) by the Geographers Guild. Clyde encounters a new species of Peruvian bear (anthropomorphized, mind you), Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) who save his life. He befriends the two bears, and they share each other’s respective worlds. Clyde shows tangible objects from his world, teaches his language, and shares the tangy but sweet marmalade, and then departs back to England without a “sample.” Many years pass, and we see Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo now have the titular bear Paddington (played by Ben Whishaw and brought to life marvelously by the VFX houses Framestore, Double Negative, and One of Us) in their care.

Tragedy befalls the family. An earthquake shatters their home. Uncle Pastuzo perishes in the disaster, leaving only the red duffle hat that was originally gifted to him by Montgomery Clyde. Aunt Lucy resigns herself to going to the Home For Retired Bears — which is I assure you a real place in this world and not a euphemism for death. She sets Paddington off to London with the iconic red duffle hat and patented marmalade in the hopes that the little bear can find a new home and family in Montgomery Clyde.

“We’re here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is.” – Mark Vonnegut

Paddington bear is a refugee, and the story is very much a repudiation of xenophobia and anti-immigration. It’s a sophisticated take on the difficulties faced by those who emigrate from their homes to an entirely different place with customs and cultures far removed from their zone of comfort. The story adds further nuance by exploring adoption, and lofts the entire thing with charming humor.

Paddington makes the journey all the way to Paddington Station (it’s how he gets his human name, as his bear name is a growl that’s hard for humans to understand) in London. There he’s found by Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) and Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), and their two children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). Mr. Brown is guarded and incredulous of the orphan stranded at Paddington Station with the note written and pinned on him by Aunt Lucy: “Please look after this bear.” He tries to convince Mrs. Brown and their children to leave Paddington be. To turn away and ignore the little bear and his plight.

Our society is replete with cynicism. The mantra of Paddington “See the good in everything because good begets good” may seem naive to some. Cynicism thrives on doubt. It keeps us guarded. The mentality is that if one never allows themselves to be vulnerable, they will never be hurt. But love requires us to be vulnerable. Turning away from the plight of others doesn’t obliterate the plight out of existence; it only serves to ease our conscience.

I should make this clear: I was adopted. My biological mom suffered from severe manic-depression and was prescribed Lithium, a drug linked to congenital disabilities when taken by an expectant mother. She felt ostracized from her family because of her troubled history, and she wanted to start a family of her own. So she got pregnant with me and stopped taking her Lithium, and she descended into a psychosis that required hospitalization — restraints to keep her from harming herself and others, constant monitoring by the staff, and even Secret Service agents showed up after, in her altered state, she made threats against the President at the time.

My biological mother wanted to keep me. Even if it meant never raising me, never seeing what I’d become, she wanted to have me. It was her body and most assuredly her choice. Her father — who was appointed her health advocate by the hospital — and a judge didn’t see it that way and neither did the physicians caring for her at the time. A court order was placed for her to have an abortion and this sparked media attention on a national level, including debates in medical ethics circles concerning whether or not this case was a violation of one’s reproductive rights.

The decision was overturned, my biological mother was found to be incompetent to make her own decisions, and a court-appointed guardian decided to respect her wishes. Fortunately, there were medications available that carried less fetal risks past the first trimester, and I was born prematurely. She touched my nose, commented that it was just like hers, and I was taken away. She never held me. My grandfather changed his phone number and moved away. Biological family members were wary of adopting me, so I was taken into the custody of the state and permanently placed in a home. The adoption was finalized within half a year. A movie inspired by entire ordeal was later made for ABC.

Paddington is taken in by the Brown family, who in addition to Mr. Brown, Mrs. Brown, Jonathan, and Judy, includes the wise and acerbic Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), but it’s only as a respite until they can locate Montgomery Clyde. This is at the insistence of Mr. Brown, a risk analyst by trade, who justifies his guarded nature and concern with logic, facts, etc. Mrs. Bird reveals a whiplash-inducing sequence of Mr. Brown going from a thrilling and cool motorcycle to a fiscal and economically sound motor-vehicle after him and Mrs. Brown become parents. Each of the family members grows thanks in part to their connection with Paddington, Mr. Brown included. It’s heartening and sincere to see a story infused with optimism and unabashed love. Not everyone warms up to Paddington. One of the neighbors of Windsor Gardens, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) is afraid of the bear and wants him out.

Legacy is a central theme of Paddington 1 and the root of the conflict nestled within the antagonist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), Montgomery Clyde’s daughter. The Geographer’s Guild ostracizes the Clyde family and expunges Montgomery’s work from their records because of his refusal to bring them a specimen. Millicent Clyde grows up into an embittered and aloof taxidermist who submits specimens to the National History Museum. She intends to “right” the perceived “wrong” of her father. Millicent manipulates Mr. Curry into helping her capture Paddington. In an attempted kidnapping that goes awry, the Brown family’s kitchen ends up catching on fire, and they return home aghast. Mr. Brown doesn’t believe Paddington, and the little bear ends up ostracized from the home.

Hurt by this turn of events, Paddington seeks out Montgomery Clyde alone and learns that he has passed on from Millicent Clyde. She tranquilizes the bear and captures him, and Mr. Curry learns of her intention to turn him into taxidermy. The Brown family learn the truth from Mr. Curry, and they save the bear just in the nick of time, leaving Millicent to work in a petting zoo as community service and Paddington with a permanent home with the Brown family.

Paddington 1 is about the Brown family accepting Paddington into their fold and adopting him. Paddington 2 is the world accepting the Brown family, Paddington and all of the citizens of Windsor Gardens included, in what’s the journey of an outsider with noble intentions being thrown into a chaotic environment, unlike anything they’ve encountered before. It bears (pun intended, again) a resemblance to Frank Capra’s comedic and dramatic sensibilities, most notably in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It’s a fascinating point of reference for Paddington bear, a character whose only “flaw” is his naïveté. Both Paddington and Jefferson Smith are at odds with the duplicity and venality around them in utterly broken systems.

In the opening scene of Paddington 2, it’s revealed that Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo rescued Paddington as a cub from a torrent of water that was seconds away from carrying him over a precarious waterfall. In truth, Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo adopted Paddington. In this reveal, Paddington 2 re-affirms the core of Paddington 1. Collectively, the two Paddington movies are a repudiation of the belief that one must have a biological link to another as a pre-requisite for a familial connection. Paddington is happy and wants to inspires good in everyone around him, but he still yearns to have Aunt Lucy see London, something she’s wanted since her and Uncle Pastuzo met Montgomery Clyde. So it’s only fitting that for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday Paddington wishes to send her an antique pop-up book of London. The only problem? Paddington doesn’t have the funds to buy it from Samuel Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. So the first leg of the movie shows the little bear taking odd jobs in the hopes of amassing enough money for the gift.

The antagonist of Paddington 2 is Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a conceited actor with a yearning to finish what his predecessors started, much like Millicent Clyde in Paddington 1. We inherit the “baggage” of our parents, and the process of reconciliation can be maddening. Buchanan pilfers the antique book from Mr. Gruber’s shop, and Paddington bear becomes mixed up in the skirmish, framed for the crime, and locked up in prison. The book, as it turns out, contains clues that will lead whoever can decipher all of them to a hidden fortune. Buchanan absconds around a variety of spots in London using his acting repertoire and a menagerie of disguises to uncover clues. The Brown family track Buchanan in the hopes of finding evidence that could exonerate Paddington.

The titular bear spends the bulk of the film locked up in prison with Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson), an irascible inmate and cook. With his patented “Hard Stare” and delicious marmalade, Paddington manages to win the affection of Knuckles and the other inmates — forming a bond with the entire staff — that makes the inherently broken prison a kind and hopeful place of pink onesies and delicious food, and it is utterly delightful. The outside world is a lesser place without Paddington, and the Browns never lose faith in him. His absence creates a void that is felt by everyone at Windsor Gardens.

The little bear makes a family wherever he goes, and it’s something I deeply admire about him. Paddington, no matter the odds, honors what Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo instilled in him: “If we are polite and kind, the world will be right.” The Brown family unravels Buchanan’s conspiracy while Paddington ends up recruited for a prison break by Knuckles and two other inmates. This propels the story into a climactic train chase sequence with visual gags that are reminiscent of Buster Keaton. The Brown family and Knuckles and the escaped inmates come to Paddington’s rescue and thwart Buchanan, leaving him a free bear. The antique pop-up book, unfortunately, ends up confiscated as evidence, leaving Paddington without a gift for Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday.

What matters more: nature or nurture? The consensus seems to be that nature is the “container” whereas nurture is the “liquid” inside of it. Meaning one can be predisposed to things but these things don’t need to be one’s destiny. What truly matters is who raises you and the environment they raise you in. Everyone in Paddington’s London family pitch in and give Paddington something he never imagined would come to fruition: Aunt Lucy being brought to London to see it for herself. The pop-up book is lovely, but this is an entirely different level of wonderful. It’s a perfect ending that moves me to tears. Aunt Lucy gets to see firsthand that Paddington is okay and know he is loved and being cared for with the utmost sincerity. It’s all one can ever hope for when they have to give a child up for adoption.

In a letter addressed to me through a newspaper (which was clipped and saved by my mom), my biological mom said she’d always think of me when she saw other children. She’d imagine what I looked like and hoped I’d be doing well. My mom later related a message to my biological mom through her legal guardian. She assured her that I was loved, related some of my successes to her, thanked her for consenting to my adoption, and wished her the best. If we are polite and kind, the world will be right, indeed. My biological mom gave me my first name, her nose, as well as her eyes. My adoptive family, as well as the dear friends I’ve made along the way, have taken care of the rest. I’m okay, and I’m inclined to believe my biological mom’s okay, too.

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Adores storytelling and raccoons. Fought the void but the void won.