Is Paddington 2 Actually a Call-to-Action for Prison Reform?

If you happen to find yourself in a dark theater this weekend gazing up into the marmalade-infused Britishness of Paddington 2, there’s a decent chance you’ll find a deeper message here than the usual kid film fodder.

Paddington 2 is ostensibly about many things. If you want to take the film at face value, it’s about one Peruvian bear’s quest to buy his Aunt Lucy the perfect gift for her 100th birthday. Examined from another angle, you’ve got a film about the power of kindness and truth as Paddington greatly improves the quality of life for those around him just by being his polite, earnest self. It’s a film that believes actors are the worst people on earth. Heck, you could even read the film as a commentary on immigration and Brexit. During the screening I attended, I picked up on another message entirely. From what I saw, I think a strong case could be made that director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby actually made a film about the dire need for prison reform and how, with the right follow through, it could greatly improve inmates’ overall quality of life.

This argument for prison reform first rears its head during the film’s second act as Paddington finds himself accused for a crime he didn’t commit and is sentenced to prison following the false testimony of his neighbor. Clad in his new black and white striped attire, Paddington struggles to adapt to his new prison dwelling. He quickly makes enemies of a few inmates just by being his kind self. He also makes a few friends too. In some cases, he makes friends of his enemies. Head chef, Knuckles, is one example of this enemy-turned-friend. Knuckles is renowned for his nazi-like rule over the kitchen and Oliver Twist-like obsession with serving the inmates gruel for every meal. Everyone fears him; none dare converse with him… save for Paddington. One day Paddington grows disheartened and disgusted by the sight of his meal. Call it naivety or bravery, but he decides to try to appeal with Knuckles in the hopes that his pleas will yield a less mealy dish. Not only does he succeed in winning over Knuckles (through the power of a marmalade sandwich), but we see via montage how Paddington’s influence transforms the prison cafeteria from a Dickensian nightmare into a five-star Zagat eatery.

That little act of prison reform ultimately creates a domino effect of positivity with ripples that can be felt for nearly every character in the film, especially the inmates. By Paddington 2′s end, everyone in the film is better off than where they started. Better quality food led to happier inmates and previously unreached levels of camaraderie. Key prisoners like Knuckles go on to receive pardons for their crimes and he, in particular, even achieves massive success with a new baking business. Perhaps the most notable example of the prison industrial complex successfully rehabbing a person’s despicable behavior is Hugh Grant’s costume-loving villain, Phoenix Buchanan.

As the film’s plot presses forward, all hope of Buchanan seeming like a redeemable character fade from possibility. He commits multiple robberies, destroys priceless artifacts, defaces property, and perjures himself. Because its a kids movie, though, he ultimately gets his comeuppance and goes to prison, but it doesn’t end there. We come to find out in the closing credits—through a musical number that asks the question, what if The Producers’ “Keep It Gay” and “Prisoners of Love” had a baby—that Buchanan adores life in prison. He’s putting on full Broadway-level productions. The inmates and guards support him wholeheartedly and even join in his intricate choreography. As he basks in the moment with his captive audience, a revelation strikes Buchanan: he’s a changed man, and it’s all thanks to prison.

In effect, King and Farnaby use the film to question the very nature of the prison industrial complex itself. Should the overall point be to punish or is it to rehabilitate? Ultimately, Paddington 2 makes the latter argument by driving the following point home: if corrections facilities strive for more humane and positive treatment of its prisoners, in conjunction with the enactment of rehabilitation programs that promote continuing education or the further development of one’s skill set (like the culinary arts), then it may be possible to help decrease recidivism.

On the other hand, I’m probably giving this better-than-average kids movie too much credit. Either way, Paddington 2 is worth checking out if you have the chance.

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