The Plight of 'Paddington 2': Why Can't an Oscar Movie Just Be Enjoyable?

Illustration by Chris Buzelli

The idea of creating a popular Oscar was a bust. But every year, engaging films like the 'Paddington' sequel are largely ignored by serious-minded Academy voters. So maybe they loosen up and make room for movies that give audiences a good time.

Let's begin by stipulating that the Motion Picture Academy's effort this year to create an Oscar category recognizing popular movies — or, as the Academy delicately put it, "outstanding achievement in popular film" — was pretty much a botch. By floating the idea without having defined criteria for the prize, the Academy opened itself up to the charge that it just wanted to ensure a place for this year's top-grossing films on the Oscar telecast (and stanch falling ratings). Amid the outcry, the unpopular plan was shelved.

Still, there was something to be said for the goal Academy president John Bailey later expressed, arguing that the notion of what constitutes an Oscar-worthy film has become too narrow, that there is a need to make "certain kinds of films eligible for new awards."

Consider Paddington 2. Paul King's live-action/animated hybrid hasn't been part of the Oscar conversation. And, I confess, even though I liked the first Paddington in 2015, I missed its sequel when it was released in January. But I happened to catch up with it some months later as an in-flight movie and found myself smiling happily as I watched (and, no, it wasn't just the altitude).

Paddington 2 tells of the further adventures of the friendly, marmalade-loving, slicker-suited bear from Peru and the Browns, the London family that welcomes him into their home. Its plot begins simply enough — Paddington, voiced by a winsome Ben Whishaw, wants to buy a pop-up picture book for his Aunt Lucy back home — but then corkscrews into a series of escalating complications that include a robbery, a prison break, a treasure hunt and a climactic train chase. The actors, led by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, lend the animated Paddington cheerfully eccentric support. Hugh Grant relishes his villainous turn as the egotistical actor Phoenix Buchanan. There's a lovely animated interlude when the pop-up book comes to life. And the movie's tag scene — Grant doing a jailhouse song-and-dance routine to the tune of "Rain on the Roof," one of the pastiche numbers from Stephen Sondheim's Follies — is just frosting on the cake.

Critics loved the movie. Paddington 2 scored 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88 on Metacritic. And none other than the reigning best picture Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro tweeted, "One of the best films of the year (no kidding) and one of the best sequels ever."

But even though the film, which was released in Britain at the end of 2017, earned three BAFTA nominations (best British film, adapted screenplay and supporting actor for Grant), Warner Bros., which released it domestically, hasn't given P2, produced by StudioCanal, an awards push. The studio has a limited investment in the movie — it bought North American rights from The Weinstein Co. in November 2017, when TWC was facing bankruptcy — and is placing its bets on bigger, homegrown movies like A Star Is Born and Crazy Rich Asians. And even if a popular Oscar award had been instituted this year, if one of its requirements was box office success, P2 probably wouldn't have made the cut. A solid hit abroad, where it collected $186.4 million, it grossed just $40.4 million in the U.S.

So maybe instead of talking about a "popular" Oscar, the Academy should devise some other sort of category — like a prize for the year's most enjoyable movie, because that's where Paddington would be a real contender.

Admittedly, being "enjoyable" is a subjective concept. An enjoyable movie could be defined as a film that gives audiences a certain euphoric lift — it sends them out of the theater (or off the airplane) on a pleasurable high. Most Pixar movies probably would qualify. Judging by early reactions, so might Mary Poppins Returns. And, last season, given how long it held on at the box office, The Greatest Showman elicited joy for many.

Musicals, animated movies and children's films might have the edge when it comes to enjoyability, but the category wouldn't have to be restricted to just those types of films. For action fans, Mission: Impossible — Fallout could fit the bill. For a demographic of a certain age, Book Club, showcasing a quartet of senior actresses, could merit inclusion. (Jane Fonda had one of most laugh-provoking line readings of the year, when, in response to Mary Steenburgen saying, "We're sure not spring flowers," she tartly replied, "More like potpourri.") On the opposite end of the age spectrum, the high school coming-out and coming-of-age movie Love, Simon provided uplift for its target audience.

One problem with the popular Oscar concept was that it carried the suggestion that the best picture winner would inevitably be viewed as unpopular. But categorizing some movies as enjoyable doesn't necessarily mean others are not enjoyable. Roma, for example, has sequences that are simply breathtaking as Alfonso Cuaron's camera, and sound crew, omnisciently watch life, and lives, playing themselves out. But it would be too simplistic to call the film, which elicits so many emotions, enjoyable because it's more than that.

But a movie like Paddington 2? It deserves some recognition for successfully dishing out the simple joy it promises. So, Oscar, loosen up. And help yourself to some marmalade.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.