Appropriate For All Ages – Paddington and the Rarity of Great Family Movies

Something peculiar is happening right now at the movies.  January, the dumping ground for most of Hollywood’s leftovers and embarrassments, is currently experiencing the release of what is now the best reviewed movie ever, since has been keeping track.   And that movie is a sequel no less.  Paddington 2 has in the last two weeks gone without a single bad review, which is just unheard of.  Even some of the movies that are shortlisted for this year’s Oscars have at some point received one or two negative or lukewarm reviews, which drove their Tomatoes score down a percentage or two.  The miracle of this is that no movie has ever gone this long without criticism, and it’s a January release of a G Rated family film.  So, why this movie?  Well, the short answer is that Paddington 2 deserves it.  It is a delightful, non-cynical movie that hits all the right notes, and is entertaining to both adults and children alike.  Watching it myself, I was stunned by how well constructed it was, not just on a technical aspect but in script too.  The humor and drama are perfectly balanced together and simple things set up throughout the film are brilliantly paid off later.  And of course the cast is perfectly rounded, including a delightfully villainous role from Hugh Grant, who chews up the scenery in the best way possible.  In general, it amazed me how well this movie managed to please me as a viewer, despite the fact that I am a grown man with no children of my own, and certainly not the target audience.  But, seeing it got me thinking about what the makers of Paddington 2 really believe their target audience is.  In a way, they have set themselves apart from other family pictures, and have made an effort to show that movies such as it shouldn’t be made for just the youngest of viewers, but should in fact adhere to what the G rating is actually supposed to stand for: suitable for all ages.

The sad thing is that despite Paddington 2 being so beloved by the critical community, it hasn’t translated over into success at the box office.  It is doing gangbusters over in it’s native country of the United Kingdom, but North American audiences have yet to catch on, which is where the movie really needs to do well.  Box office here has yet to push the movie over $20 million in two weeks, which is on the lower end for family films, and sadly this negatively affect the prospects of the future for this series.  I guess the first Paddington (2014) did well enough to warrant a sequel, and the team in charge certainly held up their end by making the sequel so effective, but when nobody goes to see it, the quality of the product ends up not mattering in the end.  And this is a troubling trend in the market of family friendly films today.  For many years, we have been subjected to aggressively marketed but cinematically terrible films passed off as family entertainment that casts a dark shadow over the entire genre, and it ends up numbing viewers to these movies in general.  So, when an actual worthwhile film like Paddington and it’s sequel comes along, audiences treat it with indifference.  One can only hope that the stellar reviewer and strong word of mouth can help save the movie in the long run, but it sadly won’t make much of a difference in the genre that it represents.  We are likely to see more family films in the future that pander to the lowest common denominator because they are cheaper to make and more profitable, and that’s a common trait among all genres.  Bad movies tend to pass through the Hollywood machine with more ease, and it’s a shame that no rewards come towards those like Paddington that actually attempt to aim a little higher.

One other thing that Paddington has to work against is just an all around stigma that hangs over films deemed family friendly.  It’s a stigma that goes back through the whole history of film-making and to an even larger extent, art.  Certain classes of intellectuals have sought to define quality in what they see as a part artistic expression, and for the most part, quality has been defined in most circles as something hard hitting, radical and often gritty.  Anything softer, whether it be fantasy or melodrama, is looked down upon, because it’s not challenging enough.  But, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be art.  You see a lot of films over time grow in esteem after being dismissed early on because they didn’t fit the criteria of meaningful art.  Films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Back to the Future (1985) are all considered masterpieces now, but in their time were dismissed by some as typical genre fare and nothing more.  Typically the stigma attached to these movies boils down to people dismissing them because they believe it’s all kids stuff, and real art is for grown ups.  But, as illustrated, a movie can be suitable for children and adults and still be considered high art.  It affects any storyteller who wants to take a moment to deliver something less dark and more lighthearted.  How many times do we crassly complain that an actor is selling out by making a kids movie?  Maybe that actor wants to be in something that’s appropriate enough for their own young child to watch, as opposed to their usual adult roles.  Anyone who spends their time solely in this niche of film-making must fight against it all the time.  Walt Disney spent his whole career trying to prove that he was much more than the guy who made cartoons, and even with all his success, he still was unable to shake the stigma that being in the world of family entertainment brings.

Which is why I am pleased to see the critical community heralding Paddington 2 so adamantly.  Though still short of calling it high art, critics are still recognizing the merits of the movie as a work of film craft and are passionately holding it up as a representation of what movies can and should be.  I think a large part of what has made the critical community come around on the idea of there being value in family entertainment is the fact that over time we have seen enough great family films to have set a high standard for them, and when one comes along that meets those expectations, it is worth rejoicing about.  We live in an era now where geek culture has taken over the business of film-making, and much of the people running the business today have in some way or another been driven by the cinematic ideals of their childhood.  It’s no coincidence why we are seeing a resurgence of Star Wars as a force in Hollywood right now, because the generation that came of age during that franchises early hey days are now the ones driving the industry today.  I myself know my own cinematic influences, because I grew up with Disney movies as a big part of my childhood, and those films still define my ideals in what stories I like to experience while watching a movie today.  We of course grow older and begin to indulge in more grown up entertainment over time, but the films of our childhood never leave us and the reason why some movies rise and fall today is because of how well they tap into that longing for something that connects us back to our childhood.  I think for right now, Paddington is connecting very strongly with adult audiences who recognize an innocence within it that brings them right back to their formative years as a child.  It’s not making us feel like a kid again per say, but it is helping us to shrug off our grown up baggage for at least an hour and a half and help us see the world in a less cynical light for once.

Paddington 2 also stands in stark contrast with what the genre of family flicks has turned into over the years.  If there is anything that the movie does right, it’s that it has a personality to it, and not feel that it has to pander itself towards it’s audience in any way.  That’s the mistake that many other so-called “family films” have fallen into.  They are made with the intent to appeal to little kids solely, without consideration for how the grown ups will take to the movie.  In addition to this, the choices made with the making of a family flick are usually done by adults with no insight into what they are actually making.  Often, a studio will collect a popular IP with a nostalgia driven following and put to work a cinematic adaptation of that same property, only without the understanding of what made it appealing in the first place.  That’s why we get so many cringe-worthy movie version of Saturday morning cartoon shows from our childhood that lack any comparison with the shows that inspired them.  We get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) taking on corporate corruption instead of an evil warlord named Shredder.  We get The Smurfs (2011) cast into the chaos of the streets of Manhattan instead of their woodland realm.  There is clearly something lost in those translations which makes the movies feel like betrayals to their source.  One movie in particular, Jem and the Holograms (2015) angered many fans because of how much it dismissed the original show’s premise in favor of just capitalizing on the name alone, attaching it to a boring backstage drama.  It all comes from studios who decide they know what younger audiences want to see, but have no concept of the reality of what that is.  Paddington thankfully doesn’t try to pander to any perceived target audience.  It sticks to it’s own identity and excels because of this.

Perhaps the most saddening aspect of mass marketing so many family flicks is that they pander to such a low base of their audience.  I wonder where so many of these movie have gotten the idea that crude humor is appealing to children.  There are so many films aimed at children that for some reason use bodily functions as a generator of comedy, most often in the form of flatulence.  Sure, children do find the act of farting funny, but do they really see it as endearing.  That stuff certainly gets old when you are an adult.  But, for some reason, people who make family films seem to think that this is surefire comedy gold, and they overuse it to the point of irritantcy.     Not only that, but some “family” films even take it a step further.  I kid you not, there is a point in the live action Alvin & the Chipmunks (2007) where Alvin ingests the droppings of his brother Theodore, pretending it’s chocolate candy, just to save him the embarrassment when their guardian Dave notices the mess that the nervous chipmunk has made.  This is Alvin and the freaking Chipmunks, not Salo (1975).  But, somewhere in a studio office, people thought that this was appropriate for children.  The movie did get a PG rating, but still, to think that this is what children find funny is sinking pretty low.  I believe that somewhere down the line, people mistook crude humor for slapstick humor.  The same thing happened with adult comedies in the wake of the Farrelly Brothers success with There’s Something About Mary (1998), and somehow seeped down into family entertainment.  Slapstick can be misused too, but it can be better applied to appeal to all audiences.  Parents and children alike can appreciate a well constructed slapstick bit, as long as the end result is funny enough.  Of course, that’s a big part of Paddington’s appeal, because it uses slapstick in an effective, character driven way that helps to make the laughs land and it earns every one of them.

But the sad reality is that these lower grade family pictures are the ones that make the money, and therefore are the ones that get the green-light quicker.  It takes an extra long time for us to finally see something like Paddington in theaters.  The weird thing is, Paddington isn’t exactly a risky investment either.  It’s based on an already established literary source, those being the beloved storybooks from author Michael Bond; it’s low key in it’s execution, using simple but effective set ups and subtle use of special effects, and the story is universal and easy to follow along with.  And yet, simple effective storytelling isn’t enough to bring audiences in.  Most often you’ll see family films spotlight the low bar slapstick bits as a means of marketing the movie to a wide audience; even the first Paddington did this too, with the titular bear pulling earwax out with a toothbrush in the first trailer.  One thing that studios must understand is that while young audiences respond strongly to childish bits of sophomoric humor in the present, that doesn’t mean it will remain that way forever.  Alvin & the Chipmunks made a lot of money several years ago, but does anyone label that movie as an all time classic today?  No.  Audiences grow out of these kinds of movies eventually.  I’ll admit, there were things that I would watch as a kid that I look back on now and wonder why I would ever be entertained by it.  But you know what I still return to today as an adult; stuff like The Goonies (1985), The Neverending Story (1987), The Sandlot (1993), and of course most of Disney animation, because there is enough stuff in those movies to still appeal to the adult in me just as much as they do to my inner child.  For a family film to have a lasting legacy, it needs to understand that it doesn’t have to targeted to one select group.  Appealing to all audiences means just that; having enough common ground in it’s drama and humor to entertain it’s viewer no matter what the age.  That is how movies are remembered many years later, no matter what genre it belongs to.  It’s got to have a universal appeal that can withstand changing attitudes with every generation, especially when their younger audiences start to grow older and more cynical over time.

My hope is that people take notice of the critical response that Paddington 2 is receiving, and recognize that it is better for the industry in general that more films should be made like this.  We really need to stop thinking that a G rating is purely for fluffy kids stuff, and show that indeed adults can have a good time at the movies with these kinds of films too.  By refusing to be cynical and shamelessly marketed to a the lowest base possible, Paddington stands out as a true anomaly these day, which it shouldn’t have to be.  The industry has lost the connection to make movies like it possible on a more consistent basis, so it either steers clear of family movies altogether, choosing to invest more in grittier dramas, or panders to a target audience with a lackluster effort with limited appeal.  What I want to see the industry take away from movies like Paddington is a sense that modesty and a sense of playfulness can indeed carry a movie on it’s own, and not just the nostalgic appeal of a title.  Paddington has a personality all it’s own that transcends it’s genre and makes it work so well as a standalone movie.  The characters are worthy of our sympathy and attention, the humor is restrained while at the same time frequent and suitably ridiculous, and the visual aesthetic is splendid and endearing.  One thing that is remarkable is that I’m hearing so many of my adult friends praising this movie so highly.  These are friends with no children of their own either, and they recommend this as highly as they would for anything up for the Oscars this year.  This is a movie that certainly appeals to our inner child, but also to our desires as an adult, where we just want to see a movie out there that doesn’t make us feel miserable or apathetic.  So, if there was ever a time to listen to the critics, this is it.  Paddington is worthy of the praise it is getting, but it also represents something worthwhile that we should all get behind.  The concept of family entertainment has been so mishandled for a while now, and with this lovable little marmalade-loving bear we many we maybe, just maybe, might be able to see a little love come back into the genre once again.

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