Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.
OK. Here we go. The moment I’ve been anxiously awaiting all late fall/early winter. Literally, the very first conversation I ever had with Nick in regards to writing for this site stipulated one single condition: I get the damn bear. And the damn bear has arrived. Paddington, your ass is mine.
I’m not normally the type to inject myself directly into the narrative, but in this case I think we may need to make an exception. So let’s take a step back to the blessed day. The day of the “Special Advance Screening for Critics.”
Seeing as how obviously weighty an event this was, I decided to, well, “amplify” my experience by doing something I’ve never done before. Pushing my limited journalistic talents to the brink… and beyond. Paddington seemed worthy of it. And there was the nagging desire to soak in the experience with a sense of newness and wonder that my aging, jaded eyes have perhaps lost over the years. Oh, who am I kidding? I just always wanted to try ’shrooms.
I’m a man of limited means and connections. My films may feature an unsettling amount of recreational drug use, but I’m not your hip uncle who always has weed. Recently, though, fortune shone upon me in the form of a new and friendly neighbor. A neighbor who happened to be a bit more worldly than I. In exchange for 20 bucks and my plus-one to the screening, said neighbor/Dr. Feelgood provided two things: a goodly quantity of psychedelic fungi and her services as a “spotter,” in the event of things going horribly awry. Per her instructions, I took a healthy dose of nastiness (nobody can really prepare you for how gross those things taste) 45 minutes before the screening. Plenty of time for them to kick in.
We arrived at the cinema nearly 30 minutes early. Even when up to no good, I’m still neurotically punctual. Adding to my already festering paranoia was the fact that the majority of the Austin critical corps had apparently decided to sit this one out. We’re talking single digits here. Thankfully, there was an overeager publicist present to make me feel even more guilty about what I’d done. The second they opened the auditorium doors, we quickly nabbed some free coffee and our seats… and tried to maintain a low profile.
The funny thing about mind-altering drugs, in particular when it comes to newbies like yours truly, is it’s really hard to tell exactly when they’ve begun working. I kept fixating on the tiny Christmas tree lights that ran along the path marking the exit. Were they brighter… more colorful than usual? Was it something akin to the placebo effect? Ugh. I was psyching myself out. My neighbor kept laughing at me, making me severely self-conscious. Everyone here can tell!!! They know! I can see it on their faces! Mercifully, the movie began. I think I can best relate the experience and my thoughts by just vomiting my screening notes verbatim here. I’d say SPOILER ALERT, but I have a feeling the whole affair will be too convoluted to truly spoil anything.
Oooh! From the company that brought us Harry Potter! I hated Harry Potter the first time I saw it, but then I loved it. That happens to me so often. Will Paddington become my next hate-to-love romantic comedy of life experience? I will use italics for commentary purposes. You can already tell I was thinking I was trippin’. I don’t think I actually was yet. Placebo effect in full swing.
The prologue is in black-and-white! How many kids will think something’s wrong with the projection? Also, good sign #1: judging by all the intelligent references crammed into the pre-credit sequence, this movie clearly doesn’t plan to condescend to kids. Kids are far more capable of processing complex material than adults give them credit for. Director Paul King seems to get this. I am feeling warm thoughts for him.
CGI bears: sorta fakey through my right eye. Pretty dang realistic through my left. Neighbor just looked at me like I’m a crazy person who likes to wink a lot!
OK! This movie totally gets it. Case in point regarding what kids respond to. Adults always worry about what scares kids and, by proxy, what they should be exposed to or shielded from. My mom took me to see Alien when I was three years old. The monster didn’t scare me (well, some). Loud noises did. And separation. Kids are scared of noises and separation from their parents. Paddington just gave us a healthy dose of both! Daaaayum. Paddington and his family (aunt and uncle) live in Peru. And some crazy earthquake just totally wrecked their home! I remember now that the death of Paddington’s uncle, the event that prompts his relocation to London, was handled very tastefully and with a healthy amount of emotional resonance. I really wish there were some kids present. It feels weird not having their energy here.
That being said, my fellow critics are responding with adequate wonder. And a healthy amount of laughter. I just insulted the entire Austin journalistic community by calling them “fellow.”
Finally, our human leads! The Browns. Sally Hawkins (Mommy Brown)!!! I adore her. She’s one of those ethereal women who just get more and more lovely with age. Like Cate Blanchett. This movie is exceptionally well cast. Ben Whishaw (voice of Paddington). Hugh Bonneville (Daddy Brown). This all reminds me that I should start watching Downton Abbey. But now that I hear it’s beginning to go off the rails a bit, perhaps there’s no point.
The tone of this movie is really interesting. Talking bears are treated as something rare, but not unheard of. Like Pacific Islanders. It’s lighthearted, but not annoyingly whimsical. The Brown family is made up of the aforementioned mom and dad, plus a nerdy pre-teen son and a too-cool-for-school older sister. She’s destined to do a mid-film 180. She will love the bear. Oh yes, she will love him.
Oh man, Nicole Kidman! How did I not know she was in this? She looks fabulous. I never thought of her as overtly sexy before. But this evil doctor/candy-striper/safari outfit does wonders. I love that she’s sinking into fun villainous roles like this. I don’t remember the original Paddington stories having an overt villain, but I guess if you have to have one, you could do a lot worse. Also, did this kid’s movie nearly just show us live monkey vivisection? Holy crap! Was I really stupid enough to think we’d see a live animal dissected on screen?
Whoa! Older sis got over her anti-bear attitude problem real quick, which I honestly do not mind, because it’s a really tired trope. Dad, a stick-up-the-bum “risk analyst,” will take a bit longer. He wants to send Paddington to a home for wayward bears. Mom is a mega-hippie and probably believes in numerology. She wants to help Paddington find a home. And son is a classic movie-style nerd who makes functional rockets out of erector sets. He just wants to do whatever Paddington is doing (as long as it’s moderately-to-severely dangerous).
Oh, I left out the housekeeper, er, I mean, random older relative. I think she was an actual housekeeper in the original book (that would be A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond, for the record). Somehow, the old lady/distant relative/maid is basically every bad Scottish impersonation Mike Meyers did in So I Married an Axe Murderer. It’s strongly implied she’s a functioning alcoholic. She’s also played by Ron Weasley’s mom (Julie Walters). “Move! Head! Now!”
Jim Broadbent plays a Jewish refugee who runs the antique shop Sally Hawkins frequents. They both share a childlike sense of wonder about the world (i.e., target-audience surrogate). Mom wants him to decipher the identity of the mysterious man who promised to help Paddington’s family if they ever needed it. A man only known as “The Explorer.” There’s a shoebox diorama flashback that actually equates talking bears forced from Peru to Jews fleeing Germany. Yup, we went there! In retrospect, I don’t think it’s off limits at all for a kids’ movie momentarily to tackle larger issues. Especially with all the revisionist history currently running rampant. It just seemed slightly out of nowhere at the time.
One thing about modern “intelligent” kids’ movies: they all seem to crib from Wes Anderson’s playbook. There’s even a split-dollhouse sequence, directly lifted from Moonrise Kingdom (or The Life Aquatic, for that matter), where we see each primary character in their kooky element/room. Why is this necessary? Paul King seems to have his own voice. This just took me right out of the movie. You don’t have to pull an Anderson to be smart. Lest we forget, Terry Gilliam also made a kids’ movie or two.
Stepping out of the stream-of-consciousness notes format, because I’m pretty certain that around this time the mushrooms began (at least to some small degree) working their magic, and my notes began to trail off quite a bit.
I came into this entire affair under dubious circumstances. As I’ve mentioned in other Talkhouse pieces, I like to go after bad movies. And by all accounts, I had reason to believe this one would fit the bill. The first U.S. trailer was pretty godawful. It featured only the most puerile gags the movie has to offer (thankfully, these are actually few and far between). And on top of that, there was that crazy Paddington meme floating around the internet around the same time. You know, the one where they posted the new, “photo-realistic” bear into inappropriate settings, such as the Overlook Hotel (with the bloody twin girls lying dead in the background). Everything pointed to an epic fail the likes of which I hadn’t been subjected to in quite some time. But then, the early reviews began coming in from overseas. And I was forced to reevaluate my presumptions. Or at the very least, keep an open mind. I felt that doing a questionable stunt would help me deal with the reality that this film wasn’t necessarily going to be the beast I’d once imagined.
Look, I’m not a complete asshole. I don’t actually want any particular film to be bad. Not overtly. But I have to acknowledge the fact that I do take some sadistic glee in watching a movie crumble before my very eyes. Which says far more about me than it does about the movie in question. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I don’t like it. And when a movie I fully expect to reek turns out to be pretty darn worthwhile, it makes me turn the lens back upon myself. There’s no way the makers of Paddington had any of these notions in mind when they created it. They set out to make a delightful and heartwarming romp for children. Something with enough intelligent references that adults could also stomach its entire runtime without squirming. Largely, it succeeds. There’s a ton of talent at play. Going back to Paul King’s early work, Bunny and the Bull in particular, it’s clear this was the film he was destined to make. It’s a labor of love.
I even caught myself laughing more than once. There was a not-too-subtle irony in the most recurrent “adult” joke in the film. One about marmalade, and Paddington’s slightly disturbing/dangerous addiction to it. Every time it came up, I felt compelled to look around, lest anyone discover the internal drama my altered brain was going through.
Oh, and a final anecdote regarding my Hunter S. Thompson-ing of the whole affair. Well, it’s absolutely clear to me now that the drugs literally didn’t kick in fully until the end credits. Which particularly sucked for a number of reasons. The first being that it was 11:30 in the morning, and I still had a full day of meetings ahead of me. The second being that pesky publicist.
On my way out — stumbling, I might add — the very friendly publicist stopped me to ask for a quote about the movie. My head went to a million places at once. Did he know? What should I do? How could I escape? What the hell should I say? “Uh, it’s a great movie for the family,” is what I heard lumber out of my mouth. He looked at me like I was an idiot (a fair assessment) and informed me that he meant I should write it down on one of the nice prefab forms he had for the occasion. I took the paper with shaky hands and asked if I could collect my thoughts “over there” (indicating the lobby, which seemed a million miles away). He said yes, but begged me not to run off with the form, or his pen. I instantly rushed to the lobby, my neighbor in tow. I handed her the form. “Write anything. I don’t care!” And with that, I promptly hid in the bathroom for I have no idea how long. I returned to find that her comment consisted of something along the lines of “I want a bear.” Good enough for me (and, in retrospect, the perfect take-away for a movie like this. After Gremlins, every kid wanted a Mogwai)! I folded the form enough times to ensure the rep wouldn’t be able to read its contents before I was a safe distance away, and handed it to him. We barely escaped with our lives!
It was sort of like Paddington’s rescue from Nicole Kidman in the Natural History Museum. That part was way cool!
This is why I don’t do drugs.