The headline last week was attention-grabbing but a tad misleading: "Paddington 2 dethrones Citizen Kane as best film of all time."
Here’s the background: Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s 1941 masterwork, which once enjoyed a 100 per cent "Fresh" rating on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, now has 115 positive reviews and one pan. Meanwhile, Paddington 2, a movie about a little bear "who spreads joy and marmalade wherever he goes," has 244 reviews, and they’re all positive.
Of course, Paddington himself, being a kind and modest bear, was mostly concerned about the feelings of "Mr. Kane." ("I do hope Mr. Kane won’t be too upset when he hears I’ve overtaken him with rotten tomatoes," he tweeted.)
But Paddington superfans — and I enthusiastically count myself among them — felt that Rotten Tomatoes had just confirmed what they already knew. Paddington 2 is a wonderful, wonderful movie that deserves all the hype it gets.
The sudden toppling of Kane came about through the work of Rotten Tomatoes’ archival project. Charged with digging up contemporaneous reviews of older films, the project found a rather tetchy analysis of Citizen Kane from 80 years ago.
Written under a pseudonym for the Chicago Tribune, it accused the film of "sacrificing simplicity to eccentricity." Also, for some reason, the reviewer was not keen on the work of Joseph Cotten.
That ding demoted Citizen Kane to 99 per cent. There are several other films that still retain their perfect RT scores (Seven Samurai, Battleship Potemkin, The 400 Blows), but clearly there was something catchy about picking out Paddington 2 as the natural heir to Citizen Kane.
For decades now, Citizen Kane has been the self-assured and confident cliché of cinematic greatness, the Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane movies.
And now, it has been overtaken by a dear little bear in a duffel coat. Cue the memes.
The coronation of Paddington 2 brings up several points about movies and how we rate them. First off, it reinforces the sheer wonderfulness of all things Paddington. Secondly, it demonstrates that Top 10 lists and "greatest movie ever" statements are irresistible — humans love to rank things — but they’re also wacky and arbitrary.
Finally, the Kane vs. Paddington faceoff reminds us that while aggregate review sites are handy, it helps to know how they work.
Metacritic, whose scores tend to be lower than RT’s, uses an averaging system that differentiates between an overwhelmingly positive review and one that’s merely "meh."
RT, on the other hand, uses a rudimentary yes/no system, where an absolute rave gets the same weight as a "pretty good, could do better" review. In other words, a 100 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t mean every single critic rated the movie at 100 per cent. It means that 100 per cent of critics, basically, liked it.
And that makes perfect sense for Paddington 2 because this all-ages comedy-adventure film is likable — immensely, incontrovertibly likable. That could, in fact, be its defining quality.
Telling the story of a lost bear who has been adopted by a nice London family called the Browns, the movie is bursting with happiness but also just a little sad, in that good Pixar way. It’s visually inventive and filled with glorious colour. It’s clever but completely uncynical. And it ends with a big Hugh Grant musical production number. My goodness, what’s not to like?
Paddington’s path to cinematic acclaim is also adorably unexpected, which adds to its ultimate triumph. Adapting Michael Bond’s gentle children’s books is the kind of thing the movies often mess up. Yet 2014’s Paddington and the 2017 followup Paddington 2 manage to retain the sweet simplicity of the book series — which began in 1958 — while bringing in everything that is wondrous about cinema.
The combo of live action — featuring the usual crew of crack British character actors — with CGI and animatronics could have gone horribly wrong. But it works, with deft, seamless craft: Paddington is charmingly furred, wonderfully expressive and appealingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.
For film wonks, there are intricate physical comedy sequences and elaborate chase scenes that riff on silent film stars such as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the semi-silent French master Jacques Tati.
There’s a touch of Wes Anderson, too, in Paddington’s vision of London, with costumes and settings that are super-stylized and slightly out-of-time.
And finally, there’s Paddington himself, prone to mild catastrophes but hugely well-intentioned and eternally optimistic. He looks for the good in people, and he finds it. And he has lovely manners: As Paddington often says, "If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right."
Paddington makes everyone around him — and that includes the audience — better, happier, more hopeful. In the current age of divisiveness and meanness, Paddington feels like a hero for our time.
Paddington 2 might not be "the best film of all time," but it could be the best film for right now.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.