Many might groan in distress at the thought of yet another childhood icon given a lavish live-action film adaptation. Even more alarm bells ring once you hear of the involvement of the producer and a few of the cast of HARRY POTTER, who now all presumably never need to work again. It’s such a relief then, that PADDINGTON has turned out to be such a wonderful film for all the family. Everything that made Michael Bond’s character so popular is here, and still manages to strike a chord with a modern audience. It’s as warm and comforting, and funny as any Paddington film should be, but it’s given another boost by perfect casting, visual sumptuousness and having something really quite important to say about the world today, England today in particular.
In the latest adaptation (and slight update) of Michael Bond’s iconic children’s tales, the eponymous bear has been brought up by his aunt and uncle in Darkest Peru to have impeccable manners, a need to belong and an insatiable love of marmalade. When a tragedy brings Paddington’s comfortable lifestyle to an abrupt end, he stows away to London, where he is taken in by the Brown family. As good as his intentions are, Paddington causes havok in the Brown household and in London at large, and in addition to his presence being a increasing nuisance to his surrogates, he is being hunted by a fanatical taxidermist obsessed with stuffing him.
I’m not sure if anyone but Paul King (THE MIGHTY BOOSH, BUNNY AND THE BULL) could have brought this project to life as successfully. All his work marries colourful kids storybook visuals with an eratic sense of humour and the odd shot of incredible darkness, and Paddington is no exception. From the film’s first scene we know exactly the tone King is going for, and get an immediate sense of his comedy influences. It opens with a newsreel from the jungle with a plumby voiceover, something along the lines of “We took only what we needed – food, provisions, a modest timepiece” (cue the Pythonesque sight of six guys in safari gear carrying a grandfather clock through the rainforest). We also get Aardman-style puns (a Sat Nav telling a driver to “bear left” as Paddington flies past his window) and the much darker (perhaps as dark as you could possibly be in a family film) we-really-shouldn’t be laughing sight of curtain-twitching neighbour Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi) proffering some flowers he found “tied to a lamppost” to his intended.
Obviously, the design team had to get the bear right, but beyond that they had to make Paddington look out of place, yet still part of the film’s world. All of the must-have elements to his character are there, from his bearish habits to his non-judgemental nature to his childish misunderstandings to the perfect deployment of the “hard stare”. It’s a pretty nice vision of London presented by King – all tourist attractions and old, multistory houses – but our plucky ursine hero also gets a taste of London weather and the chaos and impersonality of the London transport system. King, following The Boosh and Bunny and the Bull is a committed visualist, and he continues to prove himself as such here with dynamic camera movements throughout and a gorgeous sequence imagining the Brown’s home life happening inside a doll’s house.
The cast are simply perfect. Who better than Hugh Bonneville to play the uptight, cynical, yet gooey hearted Mr Brown? Who better than Sally Hawkins to play the warm, kindly and a bit dotty Mrs Brown? They’re a very believable slightly-flagging onscreen couple, and also play increasingly exasperated parents well. Julie Walters does what Julie Walters does best (act adorably demented and much older than she actually is) and there are some nice little cameos from Jim Broadbent and King’s regular collaborators Simon Farnaby and Alice Lowe. I was quite upset when Colin Firth dropped out of the film last-minute, but from his first scene you come to realise Ben Whishaw was a far more fitting choice, as a far more youthful, energetic and whimsical presence. He inhabits the little bear completely and utterly, and makes him real. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin are solid as the Brown children Judy and Jonathan, who are both slightly out of the ordinary (one has an aptitude for languages, the other for invention) but are not quirky for the sake of it, and are much less irritating than many movie children tend to be (notably Jane and Michael Banks in MARY POPPINS).
If there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting Paddington to be, it’s political. Basically, UKIP are going to hate this movie and the message it’s presenting. Paddington has been brought up with wartime British values of reserved politeness, determination and stubbornness, but is a little naive in regards to what kind of a welcome he will receive once he hits UK shores. His Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) tells him the story of children sent to live with kind strangers to escape the Blitz, but little does she know how much the world has changed. When Paddington first encounters the Browns, Mr Brown fully expects a “sob story” or for him to be “selling something”, and even the kindly Mrs Brown, as much as she’d like to keep him has to admit that’s just not how it works in the real world. It’s this message of acceptance, of understanding that ties together and grounds this otherwise happy-go-lucky fantasy. As Paddington himself points out, “Everybody’s different in London”.
Paddington is the second film this year involving a cute animal main character (following HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2) somewhat let down by a flat antagonist and a slightly unnecessary final action flourish towards the end. Beyond establishing his clumsiness and aptitude for unintended carnage, a Paddington Bear movie doesn’t really need action, and as good at playing icy as she is, Nicole Kidman’s Millicent just isn’t particularly interesting. But these criticisms are splitting hairs, and I couldn’t really care less about either of them.
Paddington is one of the pleasant surprises of the year – an affectionate adaptation, a heartfelt and witty rollicking good time for all the family, and a treat for anyone who has grown up loving Bond’s brilliant bear. There are references to individual stories I still remember that I enjoyed spotting – Paddington’s use of “the facilities” going very wrong very quickly, his arrival at the station of his namesake and initial encounter with his new family, his use of a trick his aunt taught him when someone “forgets their manners”. There are few things more joyous than hearing children enjoying a good film, and screening I was at was full of them (a particularly popular moment with kids and adults alike was Paddington’s unique employment of a pair of toothbrushes) and absolutely nothing could prevent me from affectionately flashing back to those stories at bedtime all over again. SSP