It’s perhaps the most anticipated children’s film of the year, and finally, just as Christmas is approaching, Paddington bear is awaiting a whole new generation, with a little tag around his neck asking to be taken care of.
Paddington has arrived from Darkest Peru, on the promise of being welcomed by the explorer who once taught his aunt and uncle all about London life. It is in London that he meets the Brown family; risk analyst Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville), illustrator Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Johnathan (Sam Joslin). After being taken in and meeting their housekeeper Mrs Bird (Julie Walters) Paddington has to readjust what he thought he knew about London town and keep himself out of trouble – tricky for a bear being hunted down by a mysterious taxidermist (Nicole Kidman).
Director and writer Paul King’s first film, Bunny and the Bull was a uniquely different and interesting look at one man’s relationship with the outside world. In Paddington King reverses his view and shows us how the world of London looks from the perspective of an outsider, in particular one little bear from Peru. It’s full of wonderful performances from the whole cast, and for a comedy nerd like me the wide range of comedians and comedy actors making appearances (Rufus Jones, Alice Lowe, and James Bachman, to name only a few) was delightful and showed the films dedication to comedy as well as childlike whimsy.
“I suppose my background is in comedy so I just happened to know people who I think would be really good” says director and writer Paul King. “It feels a shame to use somebody as wonderful as Alice Lowe in such a small part but even in four lines she manages to get about three laughs, from me anyway.”
And indeed the film does produce proper laugh out loud moments, with not only the recognisable mishaps of an outsider in London town but also the typical problems a family faces in daily life. There are silly moments of physical humour and also cultural references, meaning parent and child can laugh together, one of the most special things that a film can create.
Paddington bear may exist in many people’s minds as the original illustrations of Peggy Fortnum or the 1975 TV adaptation animated by Ivor Wood. But despite the beautiful Paddington creations that have gone before, the animation in this adaptation holds its own. Paddington’s fur looks so soft it’s hard not to reach out and stroke his ears, and his big brown eyes are extremely expressive, partiuclarly for ones that aren’t real. If you can watch this film and not fall for Paddington then you’re a stronger person than I.
Nicole Kidman plays her evil role delightfully, one she was seemingly desperate to do. “She’s so brilliant at being icy and she’s also so funny and I remember To Die For so fondly.” says King. “And she doesn’t always do a huge amount of comedy and I think she’s brilliantly funny and she’s got a wicked sense of humour and that seemed like a really exciting thing. So we went ‘oh we’ll ask but it’s never going to happen obviously, its Nicole Kidman.’ Then they asked and spoke to the agent and they said it’s definitely not going to happen but okay they’ll send the script, and her agent sent the script and she just went ‘Paddington bear? I love Paddington bear!’ and read the script overnight and the following morning was on the phone saying I’d love to do it… the easiest person to cast.” It seems the name of Paddington opened doors as the film making went along, and Londoners everywhere were scrambling to accommodate the bear from Darkest Peru.
“He’s a very warm hearted character, he means a lot to lots of us and lots of people around the world, and he’d made it to Australia and made it to be part of her childhood. And we had that throughout the process, of locations letting us film there that wouldn’t normally do it or ‘can we bring a crane in’, ‘ah it’s a bit of a hassle but ah its Paddington’, taxi drivers kindly agreeing to go out of their way to let you film and just things that rarely happen”
And this trend of people helping out in any way they can for Paddington even stretched as far as Damon Albarn, who helped in the development of the wonderful calypso music used throughout the film.
“I just assumed he’d, maybe at best, put you in touch with somebody – but in fact two days later it’s like ‘Damon would love to meet with you he’s really excited about the prospect, we’ll do it like Buena Vista Social Club, we’ll find these people’, some of whom are professional musicians playing on the jazz circuit, one of whom I believe works in a sheet metal factory, and they really found all sorts of people. And it’s the most heart warmingly brilliant thing to be able to go ‘you’ve got such a gift, you’re such brilliant musicians’ and to give them an opportunity to get this extraordinary music out there.”
Of course Paddington hit the news earlier this year when Colin Firth had to step down from the project, with all involved agreeing his voice was not quite right for the bear.
“We worked with Colin for a while he came in to rehearse with Sam and Maddie and Hugh, and he read the lines and helped develop the character and he was terrific.”
“But then we heard his voice coming out of the bear and he’s actually got a manly bassy voice and even though in my head it was always quite fairy you just didn’t believe it was coming out of this small creature. And I think I’d sort of slightly been affected by Michael Hordern who voiced the animations when I was growing up, and Michael Bond and Colin both separately even said to me, you have to remember he was a narrator, he wasn’t ever the voice of Paddington.”
But luckily they found their Paddington in Ben Whishaw; “I think Ben is wonderful he’s just got this lighter younger slightly sort of ‘other’ voice you know he sounds slightly not of this earth.”
And indeed Whishaw does seem the perfect choice to voice London’s favourite bear, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else even attempting what is a spot on performance. Other voice performances come from Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as Paddington’s Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo, two marvellously creamy voice performances that really do make the jungles of Peru seem like home.
Most of all what Paddington does is warm your heart with its messages of politeness, friendliness and helping others. A lot of this came out of the context in which it was written, says King.
“One of the things when we were still writing, working hard on the script still, it was during the Olympics. And we really felt that going round during the Olympics and just going on the train and people talking to each other, there seemed to be a lovely sort of spirit of what was happening in London. ‘Because it’s really a London story rather than a British one and I think a personal one rather than a… I mean the person is political I suppose, but it was really finding that moment, you know, people stop and go ‘oh are you lost? Can I help you?’ and that was a lovely thing and I think that’s what the spirit of Paddington is. It’s not about visa status, it’s about kindness and open heartedness.”
Producer David Heyman also had something to say about the message of the film in the scaremongering political climate we are living in at the moment.
“It’s funny I’ve seen a couple of things going ‘UKIP’ you know, and I think the thing about this film is, it’s about being kind to strangers, not necessarily people from elsewhere or people from Peru. What I love about what Paul has done is it’s fiddled with the generosity of spirit and it’s about be good to your family be good to your friends, be good to complete strangers.”
And this, most of all, is what people should take from Paddington. His helpful and friendly manner started with Michael Bond’s books in 1968 and will now find a new audience in 2014. This film has done the bear proud.
Paddington is in cinemas 28 November