It seemed almost sacrilegious – the idea of blowing up Michael Bond’s quintessential pillars of British children’s literature for the big screen. But we can all sleep soundly in our beds with the knowledge that director Paul King has created a cosy, heartfelt, and giddily witty family film, proving that he has taken the eponymous bear’s famous tag, “Please look after this bear,” very seriously indeed.
Opening with grainy black and white footage of a geographical expedition to darkest Peru, we witness the origins of the juvenile ursine protagonist and his family – namely their first contact with human beings, and how the bears are promised the warmest of welcomes should they ever find themselves in London. Lo and behold, some years later, after perfecting their English manners and language, the bears’ Peruvian abode is struck by disaster, and our young hero sets off for (yes, you guessed it) that very same London to seek solace, comfort, and – above all – a new home.
The outlandishly contrived opening aside, the Peruvian bear finds himself in England completely unscathed but tragically alone, and sets himself up in Paddington Station looking for some kindly humans to offer him a home (as one does). As expected, his romantic notions of English niceties and etiquette are completely obliterated after spending a few mere moments in one of the country’s busiest train stations. Only the kindly Brown family, who happen to be passing, are prepared to take him in, and thus the story quickly finds its feet – or paws. Looking up at the station in which they found the little bear, the Browns immediately decide upon his name: they will call him “Paddington”.
Ben Whishaw voices the famous bear, and quite frankly he fits the role perfectly. His slightly naïve, playful, milk-and-honey chirp lends itself superbly to Paddington, who is very childlike and trusting. It’s easy to see that Colin Firth was miscast as the original voice (sorry, Colin); his mature, dreamy, Darcy purr simply wouldn’t have worked. As in the original stories, Paddington gets into all kinds of scrapes. Most memorably, he single-handedly manages to flood and destroy the Brown family bathroom. Oh, and he also sets their kitchen on fire. Somehow Whishaw’s affectionate Paddington prevents us from ever scolding him too harshly though. He is terribly cute, after all.
Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins bring Mr. and Mrs. Brown to life with great spirit, and the Brown children are equally delightful. There’s also fantastic assembly of British character actors in supporting roles. Paddington finds an unexpected kindred spirit in Jim Broadbent’s evacuee from Nazi persecution, Mr. Gruber, who owns an antiques shop, and also began his refuge in the country at a train station. Peter Capaldi plays grouchy neighbour Mr. Curry, who epitomises the brunt of the xenophobia Paddington receives from the moment he arrives. Julie Walters is in fine form sporting a Scottish brogue as the ship-shape Mrs. Bird, and there’s even a funny little cameo from Matt Lucas as a London cabbie.
Adding the slightest snag of peril is Nicole Kidman, whose dastardly villainous taxidermist resembles something of a cross between Cruella De Vil and Cate Blanchett’s sadistic Soviet colonel in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Kidman really sinks her teeth into the role, and – though she looks a bit like a dominatrix (perhaps that explains the controversial PG rating!) – she offers plenty of light-hearted relief. The climactic perilous scene in the Natural History Museum is great fun.
“In London nobody’s alike, which means that anyone can fit in,” says Paddington in a moment of surprising poignancy. This is undoubtedly a film about fitting in – about finding one’s place in the world, about acceptance and tolerance. Rather funnily (though it feels like something out of a Ionesco play), nobody questions the fact that this anthropomorphic bear talks, let alone with meticulous articulation and maturity. Mr. Brown tells his children when they first spot the bear seeking friendship at Paddington station to keep walking, telling them that “he’s probably selling something.” Weirdly, it isn’t so much Paddington’s species that sets him apart, but rather simply the fact that he is an outsider, and that he is searching for a new place to call home. Harkening back to the image of evacuated children standing anxious and scared on railway stations during the Second World War (which would have been very fresh in the mind of the reader when the books were first published in 1958), Paddington reverberates timelessly. It’s a refugee story, essentially.
The world of Paddington doesn’t feel all too far from the original setting of the 50s and 60s, though we know it’s been modernised. There is a classic feel to the kinetic colours bursting from every frame of the Brown family home, the bustling London streets, the hazy city skyline, all of which mean that the old-school adventure plot sits quite comfortably. The whole film rests on the shoulders of its impenetrable charisma and well-mannered frivolity. It’s sure to become something of a Christmas classic. It’s a bit like Ted, but a PG-rated version, and in many ways much funnier.
There are very few bones to pick, if they are bones at all. Mrs. Bird may have been changed from housekeeper to “elderly relative” to crush any accusations of a moneyed family, but it’s difficult to escape the fact that it’s all rather fortunate for Paddington that he ends up housed by the middle class well-to-do Browns in a North West London townhouse. Then again, it’s admirable how Paddington doesn’t try to burrow too deeply into issues of class; the Brown family are not happy because of their wealth – they’re happy because Paddington brings them all together in ways they had simply never considered before. As Mrs. Bird says, “What this family needed was a little bit of chaos.” And that’s exactly what young Paddington brings.