The title of this post explains itself right? Let’s dive in:
PADDINGTON 2 (dir. Paul King)
“If you’re kind and polite, the world will turn out right.” This is the motto that Paddington Brown lives by (taught to him by his Aunt Lucy of course) and it is also the ethos that drives this entire movie. And perhaps it is because the world has seemingly gotten meaner as of late (or has at least gotten rid of the filters that previously hid their meanness) and lesser virtues like kindness and gentleness have seemingly fallen out of vogue, but Paddington 2 seems the perfect chastisement of our less welcome, less gracious, and less loving age. And, in classic Paddington style, this movie does this not by preaching at us but by showing us just how loving and kind we could be (with the odd stern gaze directed our way of course).
With all our necessary introductions to the major characters out of the way in the original, this sequel dives right into a new story with Paddington and his adopted family in Winter Gardens which in perfectly whimsical fashion involves a stolen rare pop-up book, a stint in prison, and Paddington being a fugitive on the run. Of course because this is Paddington we’re talking about here, this is no turn to the dark side for our lovable bear, but rather the result of a series of unfortunate but well-intentioned actions that land him in his sticky mess.
This is the rare children’s movie that manages to be absolutely delightful and enrapturing for children (my three-year old daughter was hooked all the way through) while containing so much subtle humour and visual detail as to keep me as an adult thoroughly entertained throughout. Part of this has to do with the meticulous storybook design of this film which is charming, frequently surprising, and filled with so many details that multiple viewings are necessary to catch them all. It is a film that mimics a Wes Anderson aesthetic, but completely divorced from Anderson coldness and cynicism, leaving a movie that is whimsically humorous and, more importantly, warm.
Ben Winshaw returns voicing the iconic Paddington and he has truly inhabited the role with his presence belying the very small stature of the bear. And as in the previous film he is surrounded by the very capable members of the Brown family with the adult trio of Mary (Sally Hawkins), Henry (Hugh Bonneville), and Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) who bring dignity, whimsy, and grace to the proceedings. But it is the two newcomers to the film who threaten to steal the film away with their performances. The first is prison cook Nuckel’s McGinty played by a typically gruff Brendan Gleeson whose humorous chemistry with Paddington becomes one of the highlights of this film. But it is Hugh Grant who truly approaches his role with relish as the former theatre star and villainous thief Phoenix Buchanan. He clearly looks like he is enjoying every moment he has onscreen and that bubbly joy is, naturally, quite infectious to everyone watching (stay for the credits, you won’t regret it).
Of course it is hard not to see amongst the genteel nature of this film it is in fact a chastisement to a post-Brexit Britain and, by default, to a post-Trumpian America as well. The point is not lost that Paddington is an immigrant to the British Isles in an age where immigrants are made to feel less-than-welcome wherever they go (while their neighbours across the Atlantic do so much worse to immigrants). But Paddington, as Henry so eloquently puts it is someone who “looks for the good in all of us and somehow he finds it. It’s why he makes friends wherever he goes, and it’s why Winter Gardens is a happier place when he’s around.” In lesser hands this indictment against anti-immigrant forces would be preachy and even a little judgmental. But because at the centre of this drama is simply a bear whose kindness and generosity is self-evident – Paddington could barely bring himself to call someone who hates him a bad person let alone an enemy. He could never write any one of us off no matter how badly we’ve behaved but with instead simply chastise us with one of those stern gazes and implore us to do better. That is a more damning indictment of our recent divisive ugliness than any sermon. And as great a motivation to become better versions of ourselves.
Many movies purport to be “feel good” and come off as condescending – we know we are being manipulated into a feeling so we are either immune to its effects or feel cheap and cheated if in fact we do succumb to its effects. The effort to make you genuinely “feel good” may be in fact the hardest cinematic trick of all. Paddington 2 is the exception in that it manages to do so without much fanfare or aplomb and does so effortlessly. Like the bear from whom this movie garners its title, I say this with full sincerity and without a hint of sarcasm or irony: this is the best film I’ve seen all year.
EARLY MAN (dir. Nick Park)
The latest feature from stop-motion specialists Aardman Animation does not find the studio breaking any new ground – but that hardly matters. The labours of love that are Aardman movies from Chicken Run to Wallace and Gromit are easily some of the most lovable movies out there and Early Man is no different. This time director Nick Park weaves a fantastical and completely anachronistic tale of Dug (Eddie Redmayne), a young Stone Age caveman who with his tribe is driven out of their valley by an army of Bronze Age citizens led by the nefarious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). Through a series of events Dug finds himself in front of Lord Nooth and the citizens of the Bronze Age where he challenges Nooth to a match for the right to use the valley if he wins and never-ending subserviences to Nooth if he loses. The match turns out to be a game that looks, plays like, has the rules of, and for all intents and purposes is a soccer match. And from that revelation, it quickly becomes obvious that this is a prehistoric movie masquerading as a sports movie. If you’ve seen a sports movie you know the exact beats this movie is going to take from here on out. In one corner are the Stone Age crew who comprise of a bunch of lovable and scrappy dimwits struggling to come together to learn a game they have never played before. In the other corner is the Bronze Age crew, full of talented individuals who wear their smug arrogance proudly on their sleeve. Naturally the clash between these two is going to serve as a mere excuse for visual humour. Like I said, there will be nothing groundbreaking in this movie, but there is still joy to be found in seeing Nick Park and Aardman take their usual meticulousness and infectiously silly sensibilities to the sports movie. In the grand scheme of things it is going to remain a minor entry in their catalogue, but that is more due to the excellence of their previous work and not the fault of the entertaining Early Man.
A WRINKLE IN TIME (dir. Ava DuVernay)
In an age of a plethora of children’s sequels and where Disney seems to let their live-action slate mostly be about mining their past animation successes, there is something to be applauded about A Wrinkle in Time‘s existence. The ambition it takes to adapt what was once called an “unfilmmable” story and turn it into a serviceable movie is laudable, and the commitment to original storytelling in children’s entertainment is similarly praiseworthy. However the end product ultimately falls short of the wondrous power of the source material. The reason for this has nothing to do with the visuals which are frequently spectacular and bizarre (Reese Witherspoon turning into a flying piece of kale being only about the third weirdest thing to happen in this movie). In fact for a children’s movie, this is a wondrously imaginative showcase of visual inventiveness almost on par with Hayao Miyazaki’s work which is all the more impressive when you consider the movie is live-action. Neither is there much wrong with the central performances themselves. While A Wrinkle in Time does the wise thing of surrounding the child actors with tons of strong adult supporting actors it is hardly necessary as the kids (and lead Storm Reid in particular) prove more than capable of holding their own. The problems of this movie lie solely in the script, which decided to smooth over the richer religious overtones of the novel in favour of a shallow Instagram-worthy self-esteem philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the movie necessarily had to go all Christian on us (as a Christian myself) but part of what makes the novel powerful is in suggesting that your strength comes in finding something bigger than yourself and leaning on a strength that is not your own. The movie flips this dynamic around making Meg’s journey about trying to find your strength within you. This lesson isn’t necessarily a bad lesson for children to learn, but it has the odd effect of making Meg’s journey that should be about the expansive mysteriousness of the universe seem introspective and navel-gazing instead, robbing the movie of most of its sense of wonder. And the movie leans hard on preaching this “find your truth, chase your bliss” gospel – about as hard as any explicitly religious film I’ve seen (it even has the great OPRAH spouting the most explicitly evangelistic lines). And like in most situations, the preachier the message the harder it is to swallow. It’s truly a pity because there was a perfectly good non-religious way to inspire awe and strength in finding something bigger than ourselves but instead the movie settles for something trite instead.
MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER (dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
The mere fact that Mary and the Witch’s Flower exists is enough of a cause for celebration. When the famous Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke) announced that they were shuttering the studio in 2014 in the wake of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, we all assumed that would be the end of traditional animation. And yet four years later When Marnie Was There director (and Spirited Away animator) has infused new hope by releasing Mary and the Witch’s Flower – the first film made by the newly-formed Studio Ponoc made out of many former Ghibli employees. When the movie opens with a mysterious prologue in which a young girl flees a floating palace while being pursued by magical creatures, it feels like a breathless celebration of the best sequences of Studio Ghibli echoing Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle. It is a welcome reassurance to Ghibli fans that the studio’s legacy of unparalleled imagination lives on. However it quickly becomes apparent that the movie is so concerned with approximating Studio Ghibli that is hardly has any time to establish its own voice.
After the spectacular and intentionally confusing prologue the movie settles down to a much more gentle pace. We are introduced properly to Mary, a pre-teen sent away to her aunt’s house for reasons unknown in the countryside. She is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen a Studio Ghibli female protagonist: curious but bored, frequently confused but never scared, petulant but strong. In her wanderings in the woods she comes across a broomstick which (surprise!) turns out to be of the magical flying variety and transports her to a hidden world and a witch’s school called Endor College where she is trained to become a witch herself and discovers that she is a one-in-a-million prodigy at magic. If this sounds like a cross between Spirited Away and a certain mega-franchise with its own famous wizarding school, it’s because it basically is
And this is the problem with Mary and the Witch’s Flower: it ultimately seems as beholden to the legacy of Studio Ghibli as we the fans are. It hits all the right superficial notes to approximate a story that resembles a Studio Ghibli film but look beyond the surface and you find a movie struggling to be its own thing. Ultimately it feels exactly like whenever friends try to take me to any new Malaysian restaurant here in Canada – the flavours may come astonishingly close but all I notice is how the food isn’t like home. Studio Ponoc’s first film offers that same promise of resembling something familiar at first glance, but look closer and the ways it differs from the Ghibli movies it honours quickly become glaringly obvious. Still the mere fact that this movie exists and that there is a studio dedicated to continuing Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy is reason to hope. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a great calling card to their intentions. Hopefully it provides Studio Ponoc with the confidence to make their next project venture into someplace truly new.