It’s taken me years of experience and a small fortune of misspent gift money to finally realize that, more often than not, simple presents are the best. One Christmas not too long ago, I went all-out and showered my six-year-old niece with gifts — she has three aunts and I was determined to be the favorite. I bought Wii games, a tiny drone, whatever ticklish muppet was hot that year; you name it, I put it on a credit card that I’m still paying off. At the register, I spotted a small bin of tiny stuffed bears going for three dollars a pop to raise money for a local children’s hospital. I added one to my cart at the last moment without a second thought.
Come Christmas morning, my niece opened her more expensive gifts with standard childlike joy in her eyes. But the second she pulled that three-dollar bear out of her stocking, she lost her damn mind. My niece is eight now, and the flashy toys from that Christmas morning have since been enjoyed, donated to the local Goodwill, and forgotten — but she still clutches that fluffy impulse buy in her arms every night while she sleeps. Despite its threadbare body and missing eye, that little bear is what she turns to every time life gets a little scary; it’s her emotional life raft. She hugs her little buddy when she needs the world to feel safe and familiar again. Simple, bear with me, has staying power.
Paddington’s Simple Kindness
Maybe that’s why 2018 gifted us two bears on the big screen who managed to captivate us with their beautifully simple adventures. In January of this year, Paddington 2, the sequel to 2014’s Paddington, premiered and earned the highest possible critical score on Rotten Tomatoes: With 164 consecutive positive reviews in a row, it still holds a 100% Fresh score. Yes, Paddington 2 — a movie about a kindly bear who’s just looking for a birthday gift for his bear auntie — has higher ratings than The Godfather, Part II (97%) and The Dark Knight (94%).
Despite the general feeling of gloom and doom that has defined 2018, even the most cynical of film enthusiasts fell under Paddington Brown’s spell. His critical and box office success (the movie grossed nearly $227M worldwide) speaks volumes about what viewers want to see right now. Perhaps it’s because Paddington’s positive message is delivered without coming across as preachy. In its simplest form, Paddington 2 is about acceptance.
Adults Need Escapism, Too
Paddington teaches us that prisoners can be reintegrated into society; we should focus on reformation, not punishment. He gives unassuming individuals opportunities to rise to the occasion. The benevolent little Peruvian bear is a wonderfully digestible hero. He doesn’t speak in speeches or monologues; he quotes his aunt in short, sweet sentences. “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,” he says, and who could possibly argue?
Upon my third viewing of Paddington 2 (I make no apologies!), I looked out across the theater and noticed that the audience was mostly made up of adults. Each one of us, briefly escaping a society that praises snark and sarcasm, slowly erupted into innocent giggles over this movie marketed for children.
Winnie the Pooh’s Wisdom
Paddington wasn’t the only bear to captivate children and adults alike at the movies this year. Disney showed the return of a beloved staple in their canon: Winnie the Pooh. Much like Paddington 2, Christopher Robin made me openly weep over my popcorn in the theater. While it didn’t perform quite as well as Paddington 2 in the box office (earning $197M worldwide) or garner as much critical admiration (it holds a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes), Pooh deserves his rightful place alongside Paddington.
The Hundred Acre Wood crew travel to our world to save their old human pal Christopher Robin’s youthful innocence from disappearing. Pooh is, as he’s always been, a perfect study in simple wisdom. His Tao-like musings remind viewers to take a break from the grind every once in a while, to appreciate life in its purest state. Pooh and Paddington luxuriate in the small, beautiful, parts of life — a perfectly proportioned marmalade sandwich and a sticky pot of honey. In 2018, our society’s collective stress level is typically swirling somewhere in the ballpark of “I need to scream and never stop,” yet here come two gentle bears, sentient emblems of youthful comfort, who gave audiences permission to exhale, relax our tense shoulders, and nuzzle our tired eyes against tubby little cubbies all stuffed with fluff.
Returning to Childhood Comforts
The two movies also just look comforting. The worlds in which our ursine companions dwell, and their sweetly captivating journeys, feel like a broken-in blanket. Paddington’s adopted home in London moves like a choreographed dance — rich in color, drawing a twee comparison to Wes Anderson with its satisfying frames. The Hundred Acre Wood feels just as hazy and fascinatingly ethereal as a Sigur Ros video.
And neither bear is afraid to leave the syrupy sweetness of storybook safety. Paddington is unfairly imprisoned and sent to jail. He feels disappointment in those around him, and his bright worldview is dimmed. Christopher Robin’s grown-up family feels neglected by their workaholic father while England collectively licks its post-war wounds, an existential exhaustion hanging over the human characters. It’s easy to identify with these struggles, especially after the year we’ve all had. Paddington and Pooh represent your childhood calling you home, spoon-feeding you recognizable but forgotten lessons, like chicken soup for the weary adulting soul.
We All Need the Bear Necessities
This year, I needed the bear necessities more than ever. I needed that reminder from Winnie the Pooh that I really am braver than I believe, stronger than I seem, and smarter than I think I am. I’ve learned to use Paddington’s hard stare when people have forgotten their manners, and I don’t have the words or energy to argue. Looking back on 2018, I’m realizing just how right my little niece was all along: When things get scary, a big bear hug makes the world feel safe again.