Earlier this year, Indiewire’s David Ehrlich coined and popularized the term “nicecore,” characterizing a growing genre of films predominantly concerned with the capacity of people to be kind, humane and loving. Ehrlich’s appraisal, naturally, focused on the delightful, hopeful and all around splendid “Paddington 2,” a children’s film about an adorable bear from the fictitious land of Darkest Peru that’s as much about the antics of its titular teddy as it is a parable for the struggles of immigrants.
Immigration was very much on the conscience of the less wonderful, albeit still superb “Paddington,” but it felt less politically minded than its sequel. It was a kind film, rife with a sort of pure, gentle sweetness that’s rare in kids’ movies. It was a simple little allegory about an immigrant finding his place in a new culture, but it remained gently allegorical and delightfully untinged by any sort of real-world darkness.
But after its release in 2014 came the age of Trump, and an increase in global, anti-immigrant rhetoric. And then in response came the second “Paddington,” a children’s film beyond any shred of doubt, but a children’s film about an immigrant’s attempt to absolve himself of criminal charges for which he was wrongfully accused and working to change his community’s perception of strangers and cultural newcomers via the vitality of radical kindness.
It’s there that Ehrlich’s aforementioned "nicecore" appraisal fits in. It’s an appropriate characterization of a film that lives and breathes by its warm, cheerful and politically astute kindness-is-king philosophy.
As Paddington says, “If we are kind and polite, everything will be right.”
That sentiment feels right at home in a film geared toward kids, but within the larger sociopolitical context of Brexit, the Trump era, and the deceitful social attitudes and movements that enabled both, it’s easier understood as an important statement that’s universally accessible: kindness is key. That message is presented in a way that’s simple, but that also feels universal.
The characters, lead and supporting, are uniformly lovable, brought to life with immediacy and heart by a cast rounded out by A-listers like Sally Hawkins and Brendan Gleeson. Even Paddington himself, brought to life by British actor Ben Whishaw, radiates charm and heart aplenty. It’s that innate friendliness that lends the film its emotional clarity, rendering all of the interpersonal relationships with a sense of purity.
Perhaps the standout of the film, beyond Whishaw’s vocal performance as Paddington, is Gleeson’s stirring turn as Knuckles McGinty, during a standout sequence about incarceration. It’s as if director Paul King wasn’t simply content to make a family-friendly knockout about the vitality of kindness toward strangers and the fundamentally revolutionary notion that anyone of any background deserves compassion post-Brexit, and decided to extend that beautiful philosophy to the incarcerated.
Which is, of course, heady stuff for a kids’ movie, but it’s also powerful and affecting.
The prison sequence, beyond its aesthetic significance as a set piece that looks and feels like the distant cousin of a Wes Anderson movie, is vital to “Paddington 2,” because it’s the most radical and affecting illustration of the movie’s core ideas that kindness is life changing, and because it presents the notion that the philosophy of presuming everyone to be fundamentally good ought to apply to the incarcerated, too.
The aesthetics of the sequence are also significant because they invoke a quiet, gentle charm that subtly underscores and compliments the fact that this is, after all, a children’s film. King makes evocative use of whimsical set design and fanciful color compositions, giving his images a visual charm that matches the film’s thematic gentility.
“Paddington 2” feels like something of a magic trick of a film; a magical concoction of whimsy, fanciful charm and poignant ideas that feel as vital for young viewers as for all others. It’s the sort of movie that’s easy to dismiss, but on closer inspection it’s impossible to shake. Either way, it’s one of 2018’s most unexpectedly essential films, and one that’s likely to strike a chord with viewers of all ages because of the gentle profundity about it. King’s ideas aren’t radical insofar as the notions they present, but they feel like the perfect response to, and encapsulation of, a cultural moment. “Paddington 2,” dear reader, is the “Citizen Kane” of its time.