November 30, 2014 1 Comment
When an English explorer embarks on an expedition to Darkest Peru he happens upon a new, sentient species of bear. Many years later — after an earthquake destroys their home in the hills — the now elderly bears dispatch a young descendant in search of him, to London where he instead meets Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, respectively) at Paddington Station. Named after the station, Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is adopted by the family until such time as either Mrs Brown can trace the explorer or Mr Brown can contact the relevant authority. At the Natural History Museum, meanwhile, taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) catches wind of the bear’s arrival and — aided by the Browns’ intolerant neighbour (Peter Capaldi) — makes the necessary preparations for her new exhibit.
Here’s a question for you: can you name a good British children’s movie. Just one. You can’t, can you? At least, not a recent one. OK, try this: name even an average British children’s movie? There’s no point scrutinising the past year for examples, anyway, for so far 2014 has only subjected the nation’s youngsters (and parents) to the torturous likes of Postman Pat: The Movie, Pudsey: The Movie and Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey. Cast your mind back further and you may recall the equally unendurable likes of Horrid Henry and All Stars. There are exceptions, of course — Son of Rambow and Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, to name just two — but it’s relatively rare you see a British children’s movie you can actually be proud of.
The man with the best track record is perhaps David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films. While financed overseas it is one of the most thoroughly British series of movies imaginable, shot in the United Kingdom and starring a predominantly British cast; and not only did all eight of them play well here but they were embraced the world over, too. Therefore, when Heyman announced that he was to return to the genre post-Gravity with another adaptation — this time of Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ books — one couldn’t help but feel a certain level of cautious optimism. If anyone could help to craft a good movie from a quaint, half-forgotten children’s TV character it would be him. Even if it was co-written by the man responsible for Mr Bean’s Holiday.
And he has, undoubtedly, helped to craft a good movie. Director Paul King — in only his second feature film, after Bunny and the Bull — has reimagined Paddington for the 21st Century, remaining faithful to Bond’s original stories while also making the character relevant to today’s audience — and not, like Postman Pat director Mike Disa, by having him participate in Britain’s Got Talent and battle an army of killer robot doppelgangers. Part of that is of course achieved by presenting the character in a manner acceptable to today’s children, those weaned on Pixar and superhero movies — and Framestore have done a terrific job of animating him, proving cries of Scary, Sleazy Paddington to be unfounded — but more than that it’s King’s recognition that London needs updating too which sets the film apart.
Originally conceived in the wake of World War II, when Bond found a lone (toy) bear for sale in a London train station, Paddington embodied a generation of children evacuated from their war-torn homes and adopted by foster families the country over — an idea that is still central to the movie, as it informs Paddington’s preconceptions of the nation while forming the basis of his aunt’s decision to send him there in the first place. It’s no longer British children who are in need of asylum, however, and realising this King has found a new but no less deserving part of the population for Paddington to represent: refugees. At a time when the British government is clamping down on immigration and nationalism is growing in popularity it takes a foreign member of a separate species to come over here, eat all of our preserves and remind us what it really means to be British.
Not only is Paddington an important movie, then, but it’s also an entertaining one, too. The film has a terrifically British sense of humour, combining the kind of cross-dressing silliness you’d expect from something like Monty Python with the sort of visual gags more commonly associated with Aardman. It’s also witty, with the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman and Peter Capaldi proving excellent sparring partners, and surreal, recalling its director’s own work on The Mighty Boosh. Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Ben Whishaw — who took over from Colin Firth when the latter left the project earlier this year. Prim, polite and very proper, Whishaw also has fun with the grunts and glottal stops that belie Paddington’s jungle origins. For an actor who has so far thrived on relatively adult roles — impressing in Cloud Atlas and Brideshead Revisited — it’s great to see him prove equally adept at something accessible to all.
As welcome as the film’s liberal, egalitatian ethos is, however, you can’t help but wonder if King might have done more to embrace it himself. As nice as it is to see Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters in the supporting cast, the decision to use English actors in international (and regional) roles is a strange one given the message, and sort of undermines the idea that anyone might come to London and call themselves a Londoner — or to Paddington Station and appear in a Paddington bear movie. That said, ridiculous accents have long been a tradition in sketch comedy, and it’s undoubtedly a small quibble with an otherwise unimpeachable success story. Paddington should be toasted — and coated generously with marmalade should he ask for it.