Plotting with Paddington

What I think I’m doing here: a little criticism in the “how does this work?” vein – taking something I like and figuring how and why it works (or doesn’t) – usually with a pretty narrow focus on one or two elements. In this post: the movie, Paddington. Spoilers follow etc.

I watched the 2014 movie, Paddington, a few weeks ago with my kids. I enjoyed it, and my kids enjoyed it, and we seemed to enjoy it for the same reasons (not necessarily a common occurrence): it was funny, tenderhearted, and charming. And yet, I found myself drifting towards boredom at various points when the villain of the story, Nicole Kidman’s deranged taxidermist (the estranged daughter of the explorer who Paddington goes to London to see), took center stage. As these were ostensibly the most exciting parts of the story (tranquilizer darts! daring super-spy-style wire drops from the ceiling!) I thought it was worth thinking through.

I think the introduction of a clear-cut villain on the part of the screenwriters was a clear attempt to try and “raise the stakes” in translating the books to the screen. The Paddington books are charming, episodic stories that usually involve fairly mundane events (Paddington takes a bath, Paddington plays cricket etc.), and since every contemporary screenwriter has a continuous “raise-the-stakes-raise-the-stakes-raise-the-stakes” drumbeat running in the back of their mind (don’t believe me? Ever wonder why seemingly every single movie in Hollywood at this point involves the literal end of the world?) the introduction of a villain provides some narrative momentum as well as increases tension. So, instead of series of scrapes involving police helmets and marmalade, we have a crazed museum taxidermist with the skills of a Mission: Impossible agent seeking to kill and stuff the hero. I can almost imagine the pitch: “…and what could be more consequential than [dramatic pause] … life or death?” [murmured agreement among gathered executives].

The problem is that this attempt to create narrative tension is out of alignment with the thematic center of the story. The fundamental problem the story wrestles with, its emotional core, is whether Paddington will be welcomed as a member into the Brown family, or not. There is a related subplot reinforcing this one, of whether Mr. and Mrs. Brown will be able to resolve their conflict with one another in a way that maintains the stability of their marriage and the family as a whole (I thought the painting of the tree in the stairwell of the Brown’s home shedding and gaining leaves acting as a visual barometer of this element was a nice touch). The life-or-death plotline of Paddington trying to evade the murderous taxidermist is running along an entirely different track, which, for me at least, led to boredom despite the visual thrills.

So, what could the writers have done instead? If they wanted to keep their framing structure of Paddington going to London to seek the explorer who visited Peru years ago, I think they still could have shifted the plotline to bring it more into alignment with the thematic center of the movie. So, just working off the top of my head, I could imagine a plotline where instead of Kidman’s character working as a taxidermist/curator, she could run the zoo started by her explorer father. Instead of being estranged from her father, she could be on the hunt for the exotic Peruvian bears he discovered but never proved existed in order to add one to the zoo’s collection and clear her father’s name. Maybe there could be an emphasis in the zoo of the importance of authenticity and scientific accuracy of the exhibits. This would then allow a shift to a question of competing belonging: is Paddington going to choose an “authentic” existence in the zoo and toss aside his iconic blue coat, or life as a member of the Brown family? (I liked that in the movie the introduction of clothing always represented some sense of belonging/membership – the hat comes from the explorer through Paddington’s bear relatives, Paddington’s iconic blue coat is a hand-me-down from the Brown’s). The climactic showdown would be shifted a little bit more to Paddington, feeling rejected by the Browns, making a decision on whether to join the zoo, or return to the Browns (who have since learned the error of their ways etc.). You could still have a climactic visual showdown between the heroic Browns and a slightly deranged (but perhaps more sympathetic) zookeeper, but I think it would resonate a little bit more.

Now, maybe this wouldn’t work at all, or they’d test it with audiences and kids from families separated by divorce would be crying their eyes out at the choice put in front of Paddington or something. It’s just an idea. But something that shifts the focus to belonging/exclusion is, to me, actually raising the stakes in a way that the life/death threat does not. It is intensifying the thematic core of the story. And, I think you could still have Nicole Kidman flying from the ceiling on a high wire if you’d like.