Sunday 5 November 2017

From the archive: "Paddington"

In the year Postman Pat and Pudsey the Dog hit the big screen with dull splats, any Paddington movie might have come to form the third strike in some unholy P’d-off trilogy: films that stole off with not just with everybody’s pocket money, but our fond memories of what made these cuddly figures institutions in the first place. Behind-the-scenes talk on the Paddington we have certainly didn’t bode well: there was that much-discussed decision to replace Colin Firth as the voice of its computer-generated bear, and the announcement of new cast members just two months before the scheduled release date.

However many rethinks or reshoots this entailed, it has, somewhat astonishingly, been worth it – perhaps because, throughout the post-production turmoil, director Paul King and his co-writer Hamish McColl always had a pressing reason for making a Paddington Bear movie in 2014. They’ve clung to the cherishable idea of reinterpreting Michael Bond’s books as a modern-day immigrant saga.

Displaced from his home in Darkest Peru by an earthquake, this Paddington (now voiced, with a mellifluous, marmaladey sweetness, by Ben Whishaw) is smuggled onto a boat by a loving aunt. Washing up in drizzly old London, he’s given first a new name, then a new home by the Browns: Ma Brown (Sally Hawkins) identified as a hippy-dippy liberal the minute her kids berate her for skinny-dipping in a Victorian bathing pond, Pa Brown (Hugh Bonneville) a sternly patrician risk analyst who requires a little more softening up.

It’s around the time a West Indian chorus appear on the streets outside the Brown residence – joyfully serenading our hero with Lord Kitchener’s “London is the Place for Me”, the song most associated with the Empire Windrush – that you may just catch Messrs. Farage, Carswell and Reckless scurrying for the exits with their communications staff: they’ll have their work cut out trying to counter such unabashedly pro-migrant propaganda in the weeks and months ahead.

The danger is that the film might have hardened into the kind of po-faced, right-on broccoli Viz’s Modern Parents might force on their offspring. It was, then, an inspired choice to bring in the leftfield King (The Mighty Boosh, Bunny and the Bull), who carries with him a harlequin visual style, an idiosyncratic (and not un-British) sense of humour, and a stuffed comedy contacts book.

You lose count of the moments that make you smile. King offers up both of Ben Wheatley’s sightseers, a scene in which Nicole Kidman (as the taxidermist on Paddington’s case) strings Matt Lucas up from Blackfriars Bridge, and an action sequence through Portobello Market that takes in both a sly Winter’s Tale joke and Peep Show’s Super Hans behaving shiftily indeed. (Suffice to say: both parents and offspring have been royally catered for.)

One might retain some reservations over the film’s look. The Browns’ home is done up like a doll’s house – King typically transforms limited budgets into a screenfilling wealth of detail – but it’s been so strenuously overlit to suggest warmth that it ends up resembling the set of some CBeebies sitcom. And it does feel a shame that Paddington should be rendered as pixels, rather than anything more tactile and present; his dialogue scenes rather expose King’s inchoate, point-and-shoot camera technique, full of cutaways to actors having to react to someone who plainly isn’t there.

Still, kids won’t notice, most adults won’t mind, and any residual resistance this viewer had was worn down by the film’s restless inventiveness, and its stream of faces recruited to be funny, not merely familiar. (The most valuable supporting player award goes to Peter Capaldi in the archetypally British role of Mr. Curry: the oddbod neighbour who proves a decent cove when push comes to shove.)

For all its production troubles, it emerges as a good deal more fun than Disney’s live-action Dalmations films, which Paddington sometimes resembles, yet it’s also powered by the biggest heart of any family movie released this year. “Please Look After This Bear,” pleads the tag tied to Paddington’s duffle coat as he sets off on his big adventure. At a time of sketchy cash-ins targeting pre-teens like schoolgate predators, it’s a pleasure to report that, in this instance, King and team really have.

(MovieMail, November 2014)

Paddington is available on DVD through StudioCanal; a sequel, Paddington 2, opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.

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