Paddington

Paddington is a cute little bear who has just emigrated from "darkest Peru" to London. He likes to wear an antique bucket hat. He can speak English and he knows how to make marmalade. He frequently makes mistakes, but can you really blame him for sticking a toothbrush in his ears instead of his mouth? After all, he'd never gotten to see one when he was growing up in the jungle with his aunt and uncle. He's such a cute little rascal that you can totally understand why a nice English family like the Browns would adopt him on first sight: sure, he makes quite a few messes but he obviously means well and over all he will be a good influence on the kids.

In other words, Paddington is basically the polar opposite of the bear from Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man. I don't know if you ever saw that film, but it's about a camper named Timothy Treadwell who was obsessed with bears and who ended up getting eaten by one.  None of the flesh and blood bears Treadwell met in Alaska seemed to have an interest in wearing clothes or in learning to speak English. In fact, they didn't seem to care about anything except fulfilling their basic animal needs. As Herzog says in his narration: "And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears... I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food."

Of course, I'm being a bit cheeky by comparing these two bear-centric movies. After all Paddington is a kids movie about a CGI bear while Grizzly Man was a disturbing documentary about a real life human being who was mauled to death, so they are meant to operate in entirely opposite emotional hemispheres. However, I am only being partially sarcastic here. I'm actually seriously interested in the contrast between what we expect cartoon bears to do and what real bears actually do. I find it fascinating that we would be so willing to invite a cartoon bear into our houses and absolutely unwilling to invite a real bear in.

 Paddington in his "Grizzly Man" audition

Paddington in his "Grizzly Man" audition

It's fitting that bears have a long history with pro-wrestling because the best way to describe pop culture's attitude towards bears is with the wrestling term "tweener". You might know that wrestlers refer to good guys as "faces" and bad guys as "heels" because those terms have slowly been infiltrating the mainstream, but the term "tweener" has been slower to gain traction, in part because it's such a silly sounding word. A tweener is a wrestler who plays both sides of the fence depending on the situation. When they are fighting someone who is a huge face they will play the heel part by default; when they are fighting someone who is a huge heel they will be a face for a night. Their moral allegiance shifts from town to town and feud to feud as needed.

At some point in Paddington it occurred to me that bears might be the biggest tweeners in the animal kingdom. Sometimes it's all within the same character or movie; Yogi Bear is kind of an asshole but he is also the hero of his own story, while Brave features a good mama bear fighting to save her daughter from an evil bear. More often, however, a project casts a bear as either a hero or a villain and then sticks with that on sided characterization and our schizophrenic relationship to bears only becomes obvious when we zoom out a bit. You totally trust Balloo the bear to guard Mowgli in the Jungle Book, in part because Balloo looks like a saint next to the evil tiger Shere Khan; you also instantly believe that the bear that threatens Anthony Hopkins in The Edge is an unrepentant monster who most be avoided or defeated but who cannot be ignored.  Truly, bears do contain multitudes, ranging from gentle souls like Winnie the Pooh and the Berenstain Bears to murderous threats like the man-eaters in Grizzly Rage and Into the Grizzly Maze.

The gulf between Paddington and Grizzly Man seems like it would be unbridgeable. Paddington is adorable and funny and heartwarming; Grizzly Man is bleak and complicated and possibly even exploitative. But there actually is a bridge between them, in that both feature portrayals of bears that totally play into our stereotypes of what those animals are. When we can see ourselves in bears they become our fuzzy friends; if we can imagine them standing on two legs before our bathroom mirror we can imagine them brushing their teeth next to our children. When we look at bears and see nothing but a "half-bored interest in food" we suddenly get nervous because we know that we could be food. It all depends on the filmmaker and and how likely they are to personify their subject. The people behind Paddington are very much into that; Werner Herzog... less so.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, because it is obviously foolhardy to equate real bears with teddy bears but it might be equally misguided to cast all of them as the remorseless boogeymen that you see in camping-gone-wrong horror films. That said, if I had to pick a stereotype I would prefer for bears to be our cute little buddies. This is not because I think they are a natural fit for the role - in fact, quite the opposite; I'm well aware that Herzog's analysis is a lot more clear-headed than Paddington's - it's because I think that bears are much more novel in the friend guise than they are in the killer guise. After all, there aren't that many animals that aren't pets which mankind has a kinship with, but if we shorten Dorothy's refrain from "lions and tigers and bears oh my" we're still left with lions and tigers as killers, which seems sufficient to power all the killer animal stories you would ever need. After all, I totally buy the idea that Paddington could develop an interest in dental hygiene but I can't imagine Shere Khan ever giving a shit about flossing, so we might as well let Paddington into our bathrooms and keep Khan out in the jungle.

Winner: Me

Paddington on IMDB