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Launched by a much-loved children’s book, A Bear Called Paddington (1958) by Michael Bond, which spawned yet more books, a clutch of TV series of varying quality, and oodles of merchandising, Paddington Bear is not a brand to be messed with lightly. The original stories’ marmalade-flavored, quintessentially British tone of voice and the ursine orphan’s episodic adventures don’t seem immediately feature-friendly given the tales’ lack of superpowers, princesses or stuff blowing up.
Perhaps that’s one reason that the marketing campaign for the new Paddington film, produced by Heyday Films (which created the Harry Potter franchise) got off to such an inauspicious start, with the first trailer in June 2014. The clip quickly spawned Internet memes about the CGI bear’s supposed “creepiness” and much concern from British fans and Anglophiles abroad that the finished product was “in a mess,” to borrow a Bondian description, especially when news broke that Colin Firth had stepped away from the microphone and been replaced by Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington.
To top it all, there’s been an uproar in the British press this week because the film, which opens on Nov. 28 in the U.K. (and Jan. 16 in the U.S.), will have a PG rating instead of the expected U (the U.K. equivalent of a G). Crikey, many thought, what have they done to Paddington?
It’s a relief to report that the final film is actually quite charming, thoughtful and as cuddly as a plush toy, albeit one with a few modern gizmos thrown in. These include a contemporary (if decidedly retro) period setting, an extended narrative arc featuring an invented baddie (Nicole Kidman) to add tension, a right-on subtextual message about tolerance, and some winking jokes and allusions only grown-ups will get, like references to Wes Anderson films. All in all, it strikes a judicious balance between honoring the spirit of the original books and servicing the needs of the target demographic. Plus, there’s a scene where Paddington puts his head in a toilet and floods the bathroom. What’s not to like?
Inevitably, the opening stretch gussies up Paddington’s backstory considerably. Where the original book was content to merely tell the reader that our hero was a stowaway on a boat from “Darkest Peru” raised by an aunt now in a home for retired bears, the film shows us this and more. First, a mock newsreel unfolds, telling how Paddington’s Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon, respectively) met a mysterious British explorer who introduced them, cargo-cult-style, to the wonder that is marmalade and also helpfully left behind a gramophone that taught them English with a received-pronunciation accent.
But years later, by which time their young, orphaned and notably disaster-prone nephew has come to live with Lucy and Pastuzo, the latter is tragically killed in an earthquake and this sets the young bear on his way to London. But at Paddington Station, he finds the locals less welcoming than he’d expected. (Nevertheless, the film is basically one big love letter to the city, and much of it was shot on location.)
Kind-hearted Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine), a children’s book illustrator, takes a shine to the little bear, whom she names after the station. She manages to persuade her stiff-backed insurance-assessor husband Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) and kids — sulky teen Judy (Madeleine Harris) and tween geek Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) — to let Paddington move in with them and their elderly relative Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) until he finds somewhere more suitable to stay. The aforementioned plumbing-related disaster soon occurs, followed swiftly by mishaps on a subway escalator, an elaborate chase through Notting Hill involving a skateboard and a double-decker bus, and assorted other hijinks that will tickle younger viewers pink.
Meanwhile, a taxidermist (Kidman) gets wind of Paddington’s presence in the city and determines to acquire him for the collection at the Natural History Museum. To this end, she recruits help from the Browns’ grumpy but randy neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi, Dr. Who). The two storylines come together satisfyingly for the finale, prompting the requisite neatly packaged message about makeshift families and love conquering all, but done with an admirably light touch.
Indeed, the great achievement of writer-director Paul King, who comes more from a TV comedy (The Mighty Boosh) and pop video background and has made only one feature (Bunny and the Bull, a semi-animated curio), is his ability to work with a broad palette here, in both emotional and technical terms. In between all the knockabout physical humor, there’s a palpable sense of sadness and loss, and a running theme about displacement that evokes variously the evacuation of Jewish children from Germany during World War II, the Afro-Caribbean people who came to Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, and contemporary immigrants, whose presence is a hot-button political issue at the moment. One clever if not terribly original device, for example, has some of the music performed by a five-piece calypso band that at first sounds like it’s part of a non-source soundtrack only for the camera to reveal they are itinerant buskers within the scene itself.
A similar playfulness runs through the movie. A dollhouse in the attic opens up to reveal all the residents of the Brown household, moving from room to room in a way that directly quotes, as does the musician device, any number of Wes Anderson movies, although The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the most resonant reference. Elsewhere, an invisible cut shows the seemingly instantaneous transformation of Mr. Brown from a freewheeling, motorcycle-riding rebel into a Volvo-driving dad on the day his first child is born. The production design by Gary Williamson and costume design by Lindy Hemming similarly straddle the gray area between realism and luridly colored exaggeration.
Performances across the board sing in the same key, with everyone a bit hyped up and overacting just enough to make it fun. Hawkins, whose casting is inspired here, stands out especially and brings a particular poignancy to the party, while Bonneville shows off a comic side he hasn’t been allowed to indulge enough. The “acting” from Paddington himself, or rather the CGI animators at London’s Framestore, is subtle and expressive although some of the fur movement is a little computer-y. Whishaw’s gentle tenor voice has such a touching fragility to it that one wonders how they ever thought anyone else could have done it better.
Production companies: A Studiocanal presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment with the participation of Amazon Prime Instant Video of a Heyday Films production
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Kayvan Novak, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Paul King, based on a screen story by Hamish McColl and Paul King, “Paddington Bear” created by Michael Bond
Producer: David Heyman
Executive producers: Rosie Alison, Jeffrey Clifford, Alexandra Ferguson
Director of photography: Erik Wilson
Production designer: Gary Williamson
Costume designer: Lindy Hemming
Editor: Mark Everson
Music: Nick Urata
Casting directors: Nina Gold, Theo Park
No MPAA rating, 95 minutes
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