How ‘Paddington 2’ warmed America’s cold, cold heart

You know how many children were seated in my row at a recent Friday showing of “Paddington 2”? Not one. Sure, there were some kids up front and a few behind me who let out guffaws at choice moments. But this was a theater primarily filled with adults who had reserved plush armchairs to see a movie about a bear who wears a parka and loves marmalade.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The critical juggernaut, a sequel to 2014’s “Paddington,” surpassed fellow darling “Lady Bird” last month to become the best-reviewed movie ever on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s become somewhat of a meme on Twitter, and IndieWire critic David Ehrlich went so far as to rate Sundance films using a scale of Paddington images. Its popularity even led Russia’s Ministry of Culture to postpone the movie’s release in an attempt to eliminate box office competition for a locally produced film.

So why the passionate response?

Perhaps it’s because for 95 minutes, the earnest bear warms our cold, cold hearts. You never stop rooting for Paddington, likely because he would never stop rooting for you. And maybe that benevolence is all we’re looking for.

The movie, directed by Paul King, follows the Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) on his adventures through London, where he lives with the Brown family. He has charmed almost every neighbor with his exceeding kindness, and his big mission is to buy his Aunt Lucy a rare pop-up book for her 100th birthday. When washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan, the villain brilliantly played by Hugh Grant, steals the book before Paddington can save up for it, you’re livid. How dare he hurt the bear we absolutely adore?

The police pin the crime on Paddington, and he winds up in jail. But he manages to keep spirits up by introducing his fellow prisoners to Aunt Lucy’s delicious marmalade recipe and achieves the impossible by putting a smile on the face of resident grump Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson).

We’ve been bogged down by political happenings for a good while now, and the positive vibes Paddington emits could rejuvenate our entire nation. He is the antithesis of social media users trying to out-snark one another, instead making you want to hug everyone you’ve ever met.

“Paddington 2” can tell us a lot about how critical reception is perceived. The movie, a huge success in the United Kingdom, grossed a modest $15 million stateside during its opening over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend but then held steady, only dropping to $8.2 million in its second week. Through January it’s taken in more than $32 million in the U.S. and has a worldwide total gross of more than $192 million.

Jeff Goldstein, who oversees domestic distribution at Warner Bros., told Deadline that “given the rare 100% Certified Fresh on RT as well as the A CinemaScore (given by audiences), we are encouraged for strong holds and a long play.”

It’s an odd statement to hear from a studio executive, considering the drama over Rotten Tomatoes that ensued late in the summer. Several executives pointed fingers at the website for “the destruction” of the entertainment business, The New York Times reported, as it “hacks off critical nuance” and has “a seemingly loose definition of who qualifies as a critic.”

Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s president of worldwide marketing, commented on the website’s popularity to Deadline: “Rotten Tomatoes isn’t new, but its omnipresence is. The scores are even part of the local TV news on Friday going into the weekend.”

While our apparent addiction to Rotten Tomatoes bodes well for “Paddington 2,” it’s also confusing as heck. The movie holds the website’s record for the most Fresh reviews (176) without a single Rotten one. But the only reason “Paddington 2” earned this distinction is because one guy — we’re looking at you, Mr. Cole Smithey — didn’t like “Lady Bird.” So, even though the CGI bear won the popular vote, it’s worth asking: Is no one disliking a movie a sign of its greatness, or does it just mean it’s inoffensive?

It might seem silly to compare it to other films that have been deemed one of the best of all time, such as “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane.” But Rotten Tomatoes actually has a way to do that, via a list that is adjusted for the number of accessible reviews and doesn’t hold just a few negative reviews against you — and “Paddington 2” shows up a pretty respectable No. 11, just above “The Godfather.”

Paddington could also win the British Academy’s vote. The film managed to land three BAFTA nominations last month: outstanding British film, adapted screenplay and supporting actor for Grant. This means our little guy will be competing with the likes of Winston Churchill (“Darkest Hour”), satirical Soviets (“The Death of Stalin”) and the dysfunctional community of Ebbing, Missouri, (“Three Billboards”) at the Feb. 18 awards.

Grant, whose whimsical disguises in the film range from a nun to a bald businessman, called his BAFTA nomination “unusual” during an appearance on “Good Morning America.” “It’s come out ridiculously well, this film,” he said. “It has a hundred percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m the man who’s had 7 percent.”

He’s not wrong. The movie brings out the best in an actor we’ve known for decades but whom we’ve considered better fit for romantic comedies than a children’s film. It also gives us the chance to see Sally Hawkins in a different light, as the actress plays the determined Brown family matriarch, after she most recently fell in love with a fish-man in “The Shape of Water.”

“It’s a strange experience, and you can’t help but hope for the best for this little character and the film you’ve created,” King, the director, told Deadline of the film’s reception. “It’s very lovely they were warm and enthusiastic.”

It could be that critics were just following Paddington’s example. Whenever he struggles to do what is right, he repeats a lesson from Aunt Lucy that we would all do well to remember in a time of divisiveness and vulgarity: “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

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