[Reviews] | New Movies, by Rivka Galchen | Harper's Magazine

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[Reviews]

New Movies

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When inviting a bear from darkest Peru into your terraced London house, the first thing to do is increase the coverage on your homeowners’ insurance policy. “Yes, a bear . . . about three foot six,” says Mr. Brown to the insurance agent on the phone in an early scene in Paddington: The Movie. The tenderness of Mr. Brown’s misguided specificity — it wouldn’t seem that the bear’s height is the most salient of details — endures as a mood in this film about an ursine immigrant to the U.K. who does, indeed, cause several thousand pounds’ worth of property damage. He overflows the tub calamitously and uses his hosts’ toothbrushes as Q-tips. But our bear Paddington also improvises in more benign ways: when daunted by the escalator at the tube station, he notices a helpful sign — dogs must be carried — and so appropriates a dog, reapproaches the escalator, and proceeds with confidence. Aiming to do things right is Paddington’s special way of getting things wrong.

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

Mr. Brown, played by Hugh Bonneville, is a professional risk analyst in present-day London. He is at first skeptical of the marmalade-loving migrant, telling his children that Paddington will need to be sent to “An Institution for Young Souls Whose Parents Have Sadly Passed On.” But Mr. Brown eventually becomes so devoted to the bear that, in a climactic scene, he dresses as a cleaning lady to aid Paddington on an essential fact-finding mission at the corrupt Geographer’s Guild.

Mrs. Brown, played by Sally Hawkins, requires no change of heart, or costume; she dedicates herself to Paddington’s welfare spontaneously and efficiently while wearing a lot of bright red. Her dramatic arc is not about the bear but about finding a way to once again see her husband as heroic — ultimately casting him as the hero of the children’s books she illustrates.

The Browns are a familiar family, one that (like Paddington) tries to do right; we can imagine them going to this movie together, having toted in their own healthy snacks. They would love the film, which is silly and smart and witty and pretty and just feel-good enough that you don’t have to feel too bad about feeling good.

A very young boy I know, who cried while watching the film when Paddington loses his uncle to an earthquake, explained to me afterward that the death scene “didn’t count” because it wasn’t in the book. The movie, however, is faithful to the book in other ways, especially in its close attention to matters of money. In the original story, Paddington marvels that marmalade is more affordable in England; Mr. Brown ponders how much pocket money is appropriate for a bear; and Mrs. Brown takes Paddington to buy a proper coat from an upscale London department store. In the film, these old-school class cares are somewhat sublimated. The Browns’ daughter is studying Chinese for Business, and Paddington’s famous coat is now a beloved hand-me-down from Mr. Brown.

A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958. The author, Michael Bond, claimed that he wrote it in ten days; it was his first children’s book. Bond said that he dreamed up the bear at the train station with the tag please look after this bear after being moved by stories of children arriving alone in the English countryside during the Battle of Britain. The publication of A Bear Called Paddington also corresponded with the height of African-Caribbean immigration to London. The bear himself regularly reminds people that he is from “Darkest Peru” — Bond had wanted him to be from darkest Africa until he learned that there are no bears there — but Paddington is also a kind of war orphan and, by association, from the West Indies too. (And from Bulgaria, and Pakistan, and Nigeria, and . . . )

The immigrant aspect of the story is what the movie has chosen to play with the most. The film’s Paddington grew up in the Andes while learning about British customs from old records left behind by an explorer from the Geographer’s Guild who had known his aunt and uncle and had taught them English. Paddington would thus have a good chance of passing the newly updated and somewhat controversial U.K. citizenship test. He would also do well on the new English exam for those seeking to immigrate, though in the movie he is thrown by the fact that, contrary to the suggestion of the records, the locals don’t wear hats, or lift their nonexistent hats in polite greeting, or unfailingly welcome a well-behaved visitor.

A recent headline in the Telegraph read: would ukip send paddington bear back to darkest peru? (The platform of the U.K. Independence Party states that “Britain must get back control over its borders.”) Last year, when Bulgarians and Romanians gained the right to work in the rest of the E.U., word leaked that the British government was working on an ad campaign to run in those countries that made the U.K. seem too rainy and too hard to find jobs in. Paddington offers a slant rhyme to that. You’re part of our family is the sentiment the movie closes with. Though we originally didn’t believe your story about being shot at with tranquilizer darts by an evil taxidermist in leather and heels, now we understand.

Paddington Bear, Curious George, Pinocchio: they are themselves, they have the magnetism of symbols, but they are also straightforward depictions of very young children. Their gaits are peculiar, they make a mess when they eat, everything is new to them, and they can’t get by on their own.

If we picture any of these classic stories with human children for protagonists, we are immediately repelled; or, if not repelled, we at least see that they no longer work as children’s stories. The problem that paws and puppets allow us to work around is that vulnerability is both appealing and appalling. The fantastic usefully hides this fact, and counters it. Characters like Paddington — a stand-in for the most vulnerable child of all, the immigrant — are universally sympathetic in a way that a human never could be.

The Adventures of Pinocchio, the novel, has almost no adults in it. Geppetto is absent for most of the book, and the blue-haired fairy is a dead child. Most of Pinocchio’s characters, nice and not, are animals and children who live in a world where dead things come alive, boys turn into donkeys, and marionettes talk.

A chapter toward the end of Pinocchio takes place in a land populated exclusively by adult humans, who, from Pinocchio’s perspective, are made to work like donkeys. Pinocchio is starving, but he is offered food only on the condition that he work. He doesn’t want to be a donkey, however — he wants to be a human — and so, frustratingly for the reader, Pinocchio turns down offer after offer of work.

The realism of that chapter of Pinocchio reads as the strangest and most disturbing of all of its strange adventures. No acceptable resolution is found within the logic of that world — only the return of the blue-haired fairy lets light back into the tale, a tale that originally ended with Pinocchio hung from a tree by the Cat and the Fox. Readers who had followed serial installments of the story in newspapers found the ending too dark, and asked for more.

There are almost no Peruvian immigrants to England, but I did actually go once to darkest Peru, where I learned something, unexpectedly, about the queen. I was working for a public-health researcher on a study based in small fishing villages outside the Amazonian city of Iquitos. It was an island of sorts, a city to which no roads led; one could only get there by boat or plane, and the villages were even more remote. Each morning our research team traveled out from Iquitos some miles via rickshaw and then a further few miles on foot. From there we visited jungle huts and, among other things, asked for permission to take fecal samples from the villagers’ chickens using Q-tips, if they had chickens, which the well-off among them did. The samples were then sent off to be tested for the presence of antibiotics. Nearly all the residents agreed to participate in the study because we brought with us things like acetaminophen and antibiotics, a detail that frustrated — appropriately — the research scientist who coordinated the project, a family practitioner studying the development of antibiotic resistance.

In addition to gathering information about antibiotic usage among the animals and humans in the villages, we also administered a socioeconomic census, the same census that was being conducted in other cities and towns where the study was happening, which made almost no sense among these sustenance-fishing families. “How many televisions do you have?” the form asked. “How many chairs?” There was never a television, and never a chair, though there was often one hammock, which, not being sure whether to count it or not, we counted. The homes had thatched roofs and no external walls and no electricity and no running water. In two weeks of visiting homes all day, there was once a radio, and once a several-year-old tabloid newspaper lining an internal wall as wallpaper.

One disconcerting detail was that the people in these villages were exceptionally beautiful; this was true in a way that couldn’t be accounted for simply by the romantic lens of exoticism. They had bright eyes, smooth skin, white teeth, and beautiful hair; no one was bald or wrinkled or overweight. Only some time into our second week did I realize that we had not met a single person over the age of forty. (In the Peruvian mountain areas, one often encountered people in their eighties and nineties, but never in the jungle.)

On the census forms, we noted the ages and names of the residents of each hut, including the children. The most common name for boys was Israel; the most common among the girls, by far, was LadyDi.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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