Over the Christmas break (which seems like a MILLION years ago now! Waaah!) you may have seen Paddington 2 – or like me, you may have ended up seeing it TWICE!
But unusually, I had no issues watching it a second time because it was so damn good — a script editor’s dream, in fact! I actually think it improves on the first Paddington in pretty much every way, here’s why, plus what writers can learn from it as ‘Top Tips’ to take away. Ready? Let’s go …
1) The plot has a MacGuffin
A MacGuffin is ‘a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues.’ In Paddington 2, the pop up book of London serves as the catalyst for the story: first in terms of Paddington wanting it for his Aunt Lucy’s birthday (and needing to earn money to buy it), then by drawing antagonist Phoenix Buchanan into the action at the steam fair when he hears about it and decides to burgle Mr. Gruber’s shop to get it.
As soon as the dastardly Phoenix gets involved of course, the doo-doo REALLY hits the fan and thanks to a case of mistaken identity, poor Paddington ends up IN PRISON! OMG! I see MacGuffins so infrequently in both spec screenplays and unpublished novels, but Paddington 2 demonstrates what a superb – not to mention dramatically satisfying – device this can be.
TOP TIP: Find out as much as you can about plotting and the devices you could use in your story. Unusual devices done well can really make your work stand out. MORE: What is the MacGuffin? (Plus how to use it)
2) Paddington is a change agent
A lot is made of transformative arcs in screenwriting generally … The notion of a protagonist having to undergo some sort of change is so accepted by newbie screenwriters as an absolute that they can get very lairy when it’s suggested characters DON’T have to change! What’s more, family movies often place some sort of realisation at their heart for the protagonist, so probably 9/10 characters in this genre DO change.
Paddington Brown is an exception. Instead, like Forrest Gump before him, Paddington is a ‘change agent’. In other words, he stays exactly the same, but inspires others AROUND HIM to change: whether that’s the Browns, Knuckles and other the men in prison, or the neighbours on his street, Paddington is a character that brings new realisations WITH him, just by being himself. Refreshing.
TOP TIP: Protagonists DON’T have to change. Realising this – and what you can do instead – can really open up story and character. For more on Change Agents, CLICK HERE.
3) The antagonist’s arc is understandable (even if we don’t condone it)
Very often in kids’ and family movies, antagonists are ‘comic book villains’ – evil for the sake of it. The first Paddington was no different in this regard: Millicent, Nicole Kidman’s character, had a real touch of Cruella De Vil about her. She was fabulous fun for sure – her Mission Impossible antics in five inch stilettos was a highlight – but there was little ‘real’ about her.
In comparison, Phoenix Buchanan is a much more fleshed-out character. Whilst he is as flamboyant and larger-than-life as Millicent, he also feels much more human. We understand his history with the Koslova circus, plus why he doesn’t want to have to do dog food commercials. We’re invited into his worldview so much, we even feel as puzzled as him when he discovers the Browns in their pyjamas, hiding in his living room.
Most of all, however we feel sorry for Phoenix: his scenes with the dummies in the attic are easily some of the strongest in the movie, plus they really show Hugh Grant’s range, under-used until now. That’s why his epilogue scenes, as the credits roll, are so joyous: Phoenix has found his place at last! It truly is a happy ever after for everyone.
TOP TIP: The best, most memorable antagonists feel like real people, with their own motivations and counter-goals. MORE: 7 Reasons We Love To Hate Villain Characters
4) There are fun ‘Easter Eggs’ & Magical Realism
For the uninitiated, an ‘Easter Egg’ when it comes to movies (and similar) is ‘an intentional inside joke, a hidden message or image, or a secret feature of a work.‘ My favourites were the newspaper headlines Knuckles is reading in the kitchen, which include some brilliantly groan-worthy puns (if you missed them, watch out for them next time!).
What’s more, Paddington 2 makes brilliant use of Magical Realism, which is a whimsical version of reality that includes fantastical elements. Whether it’s transporting us INTO the pop-up book mentioning in point 1, or the Browns’ home turning into into a dollhouse, or the prison inmates’ escape plans underneath the prison, the story world reminds us this might be the real world … but *not quite*. And what do you expect, when there are talking bears as well!
TOP TIP: The story world your characters find themselves in can underscore the tone of your story, as well as many other functions. Don’t under-utilise story world in your narrative – it can add so much. MORE: 7 Tips On World-Building
5) It gives every secondary character a motivation …
Unusually, it’s the Browns – NOT Paddington – who essentially solve the crime (even though the poster might say ‘It Takes A Bear To Catch A Thief!’). The Family – plus housekeeper Mrs. Bird – do all the legwork in tracking down what they think first is a gang of thieves, only for Mary Brown to put all the pieces together and realise it was just one man: Phoenix Buchanan, master of disguise!
But even though the family have an obvious motivation pertaining to the plot (prove Paddington is innocent and get him out of prison), each character has his/or her own problems as well, making for fantastically layered characterisation, which also becomes plot points in their own right:
- Judy, a wannabe journalist, runs her own newspaper … Which helps create a number of leads for the family in their quest, plus drums up sympathy from the neighbours to help too
- Jonathan aka ‘J Dog’ wants to be cool, so tamps down his enthusiasm for trains throughout the movie. However, only he is able to drive the steam train that pursues the circus train carrying Paddington and Phoenix a they fight over the pop-up book
- Mr Brown is having a midlife crisis and has been doing yoga, which comes in handy when he finds himself caught between two trains in his attempt to rescue Paddington
- Mrs Brown wants to swim the channel, so her training comes in handy when she has to rescue Paddington from the circus train when it hits the water. (What’s more, Knuckles and the other men in prison, changed by Paddington, come to his rescue – not once but twice – first by helping break him out of jail, then by helping Mrs Brown in the water).
I’ve not seen many films that have done such a great job of tying everything up in a bow (that doesn’t feel saccharine and overdone), but that’s because Paddington 2 knows the importance of balancing both character and plotting in a truly great ending.
TOP TIP: A great ending balances both great characterisation and plotting by seeding interesting set ups and kickass pay offs. MORE: 3 Things To Remember For Act 3
6) … And peripheral characters are not just decoration
Peripheral characters, animal or human, all have their place in the narrative. Wolfie the dog provides some of the best scenes with Paddington, plus it’s Feathers the parrot who produces the key element of exposition regarding the real perpetrator behind the burglary, without it being obvious or forced.
From there, whether it’s Miss Kitts’ newsstand (and her romance with The Major); Dr Jafri losing his keys; or Mr Barnes the refuse collector, every single one of these peripheral characters pull their weight in pushing the story forward. Paddington’s loss is felt by every single one of them – which in turn means they will do all they can to help get him back.
Plus, The Judge – and Paddington’s haircut calamity, not to mention his being on the train with them all as well – was absolutely hilarious. Arf!
TOP TIP: Peripheral characters are frequently thought of as ‘throwaways’, but Paddington 2 shows us they can not only perform their own function, they can help push the plot forward meaningfully AND add to the storyworld. MORE: 7 Characters That Nearly Always A Big Mistake
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