For those of us who grew up in the eighties or nineties, we’ve had to endure seeing some of our favourite children’s TV shows pulped and dismembered until the fun, the excitement, everything we loved about them, is absent up on the big screen (Thunderbirds, Garfield, The Smurfs, etc.). The difference with Paul King’s film adaptation of Michael Bond’s much loved Paddington Bear books and TV series is that King has immeasurable amounts of respect for his source material.
In Darkest Peru, an English explorer discovered ultra-smart bears that could talk and were borderline obsessive over marmalade. Decades later, an earthquake wipes out young Paddington bear’s family home. Believing that all English people are as polite and kind as the explorer from years back, Paddington sets off for London in the hope that a family there will look after him.
King also wrote the screenplay for Paddington, which is a near-as-damn-it-perfect combination of eccentric British humour, but also moments of pull-at-the-heartstrings sadness that both children and adults will appreciate. There is so much to laugh at in Paddington, some of the jokes being both inventive and off-the-scale bonkers (the prim-and-proper black-and-white show reel that opens the film, showing the explorer’s encounters with the bears; Paddington being followed round by a calypso band), but there are occasional dramatic and sad scenes that are far from heavy handed or feel like they belong in a different film (the earthquake is bound to scare the very young, hence the PG certificate, while scenes where Paddington is alone at the train station he is named after, commuters shoving past and ignoring him – far from the friendly, open armed capital he was expecting – is lump to the throat stuff). King has done a fine job here of keeping the gentle humour and the boundless optimism of Bond’s books (written only years after the Second World War), but modernises Paddington just enough to make London recognisable to today’s audience. Much of the laughs come from Paddington’s old fashioned politeness and etiquette whenever he meets a stranger or comes across a new situation in London’s busy streets, and while it’s the same pun much of the time, King throws in enough ideas to make sure you never really notice.
The whole cast clearly had fun making Paddington. Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville nearly steals the show as Mr. Brown, far from happy when his wife decides to let a bear stay at their home. Mr Brown used to be adventurous and spur of the moment, until he became a father and took on a job as a risk analyst to make ends meet. Bonneville gets more than his fair share of the laughs, his po-faced asides and remarks guaranteed to have audiences sniggering. Sally Hawkins is ideally cast as the quirky Mrs. Brown, always beaming with optimism, epitomising many of the themes from Bond’s books. Nicole Kidman enjoys herself, hamming it up as the film’s taxidermist villain, having a bitchy answer for everything and following up her dialogue with a textbook wicked smile and an evil twinkle in her eye. Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi briefly turns up as a nosey neighbour, relishing the one-liners he’s given. Julie Walters turns peculiar all the way up to eleven with her performance as the Brown’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, giving a brilliantly over-the-top Scottish accent along with her barmy stare.
Star of the show is the bear himself. While not quite the photo realism of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Paddington looks as friendly and adorable as fans of Bond’s books would expect, and will have plenty of children going “Aaawww!” There are some impressive touches with the animation, such as when Paddington is stood out in the rain all alone, his fur soaked, rain dripping off him, or when the Brown children use hair dryers on him, Paddington looking like a giant hair ball. Ben Whishaw (cast as Q in the upcoming Bond film, SPECTRE) does superb work here, lending his vocals to the marmalade-loving bear, Paddington’s voice sounding gentle, whispery, and heart-on-his-sleeve innocent.
It’s not just the bear who looks impressive; Erik Wilson makes London a palette of colour for the eyes. Just as the illustrations in Bond’s books made London this vibrant, magical-looking place, Wilson does the same here, managing to make the capital’s streets just as awe-inspiring as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. This is an idealist’s view of London, where if you took away the cynicism, people would realise that this is a capital with a dynamic mix of art, music, and different people from all over the world.
Paddington is a rare thing, a film adaptation of a childhood franchise that gets things absolutely right. This isn’t a cold, cynical money maker, Paddington has warmth, humour and, while it can easily be placed in the family film genre, every family member who watches it, however young or old, is guaranteed to have a great big smile on their face.
4 out of 5