When the first, short trailers for the Paddington film surfaced, it looked suspiciously as though it might be rubbish, with its hints of a broad, slapstick CGI-fest. Then when Colin Firth announced back in June that he was pulling out as the voice of the bear himself, it all felt a bit like a wash-out. So it’s a real unexpected pleasure to report that the finished film is actually a little marvel.
That’s a relief, because bringing a beloved [cough] ‘product’ such as this to the big screen can be full of hurdles. Getting it right can be hard work. And if you’re thinking, “Hang on, it’s only a kids’ film!” – well, the sad fact is that film-makers often seem to think exactly the same. They’re faced with the choice of bringing wit, flair and imagination to the source idea, or just cobbling something together with a muttered “Oh, this’ll do” – as anyone who paid good money to see the recent film versions of Postman Pat, Yogi Bear or Top Cat can attest.
Paddington comes with its own baggage, quite aside from a suitcase full of marmalade. Michael Bond’s original books remain evergreen, and the Ivor Wood animated TV series did them proud (before that, a generation got to know them through Jackanory readings by Thora Hird). The books, in fact, are very episodic. Paddington’s curiosity and clumsiness get him into endless scrapes, and the scrapes get out of hand. Just right for a chapter a night before bedtime, which suited the TV versions down to the ground. But what they didn’t have was the kind of strong, driving narrative that’s required by cinema. One has been built in here and while it’s far from flawless, the transition to the big screen has been effected pretty deftly.
After a short prologue in Darkest Peru, we see Paddington making his way to London, and, as per every previous telling, fetching up on a certain train platform where he encounters the Brown family. Once they take him in, we’re into many of the best-loved Paddington moments, presented as genuinely rib-tickling comic set pieces. As it goes on, the broader plot kicks in, with Nicole Kidman as a twisted taxidermist who has nasty plans for our hero the bear.
In the event, after all the to-ings and fro-ings, Ben Whishaw turns out to be perfect as the voice of Paddington, with just the right mix of polite wisdom and cuddly vulnerability. As Mr and Mrs Brown, Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins give winning, well-judged performances, too. But arguably the real star here is Paul King, doubling up as writer and director. King cut his teeth directing TV comedy, not least the phantasmagorical Mighty Boosh. Not only has he made a very decent job of the script, he’s brought a sense of visual flair that adds magic to the whole piece. The Browns’ stairway is decorated with a tree design which changes according to the seasons, and Paddington’s attic room contains a doll house which opens up to reveal a cutaway of the whole house in miniature. Maybe it’s a bit wannabe Wes Anderson at times, but it’s wonderful to see a British film with so much boldness, imagination and style, no matter what age group it’s aimed at.
There’s plenty to enjoy here. In the true spirit of the main character, it’s effortlessly sweet and loveable. Nick Urata’s score is a tinkly, twinkly treat. Michael Bond himself puts in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo, after the fashion of Stan Lee in the Marvel superhero movies. But perhaps the biggest surprise is that Paddington’s plight as a homeless immigrant is made a key pivot of the film. In previous versions, he’s been termed a ‘stowaway’, but this makes no bones about his status. The shadow of injustice is all around him, in fact. Next door neighbour Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi) is a cheerless reactionary, making sneery comments about ‘jungle music’ and worrying if Paddington’s arrival will be the tip of the iceberg and the neighbourhood is about to go down the pan. Hungarian antiques expert Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent) loves toy trains and reminisces about a particularly important train journey from his childhood – evidently escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport. It’s even peppered through with songs performed by a calypso band – diegetically, if you’re asking – which date back to West Indian musicians such as Lord Kitchener coming to the UK in the aftermath of World War II.
You couldn’t call this preaching to the converted. Little viewers aren’t converted at all: they are open-minded, and the message here is that they should stay that way. Actually, you couldn’t call it preaching at all. It’s all done with an admirable lightness of touch. But it’s undeniably there, nonetheless – a quiet argument for tolerance, diversity and inclusion. Nigel Farage would hate it, so what’s not to love?
OK, so there are some little niggles. Yes, it does present London as a chocolate box-cum-theme park, with the very marketable star of international hit Downton Abbey as the pater familius. That taxidermy plot is very nearly too sinister for some younger viewers, and doesn’t sit quite right with the tone of the rest of the film. And while it’s great that the familiar Paddington cast of characters are all present and correct – and exquisitely cast they are, too – few of them have very much to do. Oh yes – and, what, only one single showing for Paddington’s legendary Hard Stare?
Still, there’s plenty of room to address these matters in future outings. One assumes they’re in the pipeline. In fact, on this showing, one ardently hopes so. But one word of warning: if they make a follow-up without the considerable talents of Paul King in place, they’ll deserve a very hard stare indeed.
By Andy Murray