Skip to main content

Stranger danger. Keep your eyes down, there's some sort of bear.

Paddington
(2014)

(SPOILERS) There’s good reason to be surprised at the pedigree of Paddington. Aardman aside, British animations are often less than auspicious, and the history of CGI-character-led live action adaptations of children’s favourites have generally met with tepid results (Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo). Nothing in the pre-release material, not least the generically cute design of Paddington himself, led me to think any differently. Then there was the loss of Colin Firth as the titular bear. If even Firth was quitting surely it must stink? And yet Paddington is a hugely enjoyable family movie, stylishly made, witty, sweet without being mawkish, and updated without offending defenders of the novels. It also manages to be very English, in a way that plays on Hollywood concepts of Englishness but also because it actually is.


Firth left the project because Paddington “does not have the voice of a very handsome older man, who has the most beautiful voice on the planet”. As someone used to Michael Horden’s mature tones, it took a while to get used to the wispy Ben Wishaw’s youthful bear, as much as the endearing stop-motion Paddington of the BBC TV version had a sense of character and poise this fully mobile, gymnastic type lacks. That aside, however, this Paddington comes complete with duffle coat, marmalade-sandwich concealing hat, brief case, and an unerring politeness that transcends his ability to make a hash of things (which all turn out fine in the end).


Director Paul King co-wrote the screenplay with Hamish McColl (of Mr Bean’s Holiday and Johnny English Reborn; if not for those, I might have said it gives hope for McColl’s Dad’s Army script but Emma Thompson also did a pass on this). King was responsible for the inspired visual disturbia of The Mighty Boosh, which goes a long way to explain the inventiveness on display here. The script shows significant fidelity to the books, albeit with the winning embellishment of explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie, wonderfully British Empire) discovering the bears and teaching them English.


This sequence, playing as sepia newsreel footage, is chock full of sight gags (one of which includes mild innuendo over which the BBFC twisted its knickers) and introduces us to Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon). No kid’s movie is complete without a slice of tragedy, and it’s after this that Paddington is packed off to England. He arrives, eventually, at the station that lends him his name, where the kindly Browns discover, and christen. They also take him in, at their home of 32 Winsor Gardens, Notting Hill. Of course, this all needs a skullduggerous plot to hinge his mishaps on, so a nefarious taxidermist (Nicole Kidman’s Millicent) is bent on stuffing him to boot.


I say they welcome him. Mrs (Mary) Brown is instrumental in whisking Paddington home, wearing nowt but a hat and luggage tag (that’s Paddington, not Mrs Brown). Mr (Henry) Brown is a safety-obsessed sourpuss who wants the bear to move on at the first opportunity. Sally Hawkins is utterly beguiling as the dappy hippy mum, and Hugh Bonneville’s grumpy boots dad equally and oppositely matches her. 


I don’t really know Bonneville’s work (I studiously avoid Downton Abbey), but his hugely game performance takes in a carefree pre-parent persona and a hilarious manifestation as a cleaning lady (who then proceeds to flirt with a lusty security guard – BBFC ahoy!) There’s an odd moment at the end where, having stood firm in defence of Paddington as a member of the family, dad bitches out and leaves him to the mercy of Millicent, but generally he turns out to be a good sort (his reference to Paddington’s “worrying marmalade habit” is up there with Dougal’s resistance to his sugar lump addiction in Dougal and the Blue Cat).


Before long Paddington is getting up to unintended mischief, flooding the bathroom (again, King’s visual panache is in full effect), using toothbrushes as ear syringes (a deliriously bloik-worthy sequence that has the expectedly bleugh-gusting pay-off) and pursuing a pickpocket, The latter chase becomes ever-more unhinged, as Paddington accumulates various items that cross his path (a skateboard, a policeman’s hat, a whistle), before launching skywards, Mary Poppins-like, with an open umbrella. 


Other inventive sequences see him embroiled in sellotape while Millicent does a Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible to bearnap him (the theme tune is used for a later scene of Paddington derring-do). An extended set piece in the Geographer’s Society is a Gilliam-esque maze of postage tubes and BBC Micros, where one misplaced marmalade baguette can gum up the entire works.


Elsewhere King gives us a gaggle of marmalade-fixated pigeons, a dollhouse presentation of the Brown’s own house, Paddington giving his “hard stare”, an encounter with an escalator, an interlude with a Beefeater’s TARDIS-like hat (this when Paddington believes he is no longer welcome at the Brown’s and is seeking out the Clyde), and a calypso band performing on any given street corner. The creativity here puts most family movies to shame, particularly in its easy idiosyncrasy.


Of the remaining performers, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin manage not to be the annoying kids, and King wisely doesn’t turn this into a picture that is all about their relationship with the bear. Julie Walters is rather tiresome, wheeling out her old woman Walters routine as Mrs Bird. It’s one we’ve seen a million times before (Walters was much better in The Harry Hill Movie). 


Peter Capaldi plays neighbour Mr Curry as a seedy-eyed masturbator (as Doctor Who actors showing a different side go, it compares to Patrick Troughton in that Morse episode) who is, most amusingly, instantly smitten with “honeypot” Millicent.


It’s Kidman who is the real weak link in this picture, preventing it from climbing to the heights of instant classic. We’ve seen before that she has no facility for comedy (The Stepford Wives). Bless her for giving her kids something age-appropriate to see, but mum’s comic timing will not be visible. Glenn Close was the kind of big performance needed (or, better still, Miranda Richardson). Kidman fully embraces an array of tight costumes but is otherwise utterly unmemorable.


Paddington is, as I’m sure Michael Bond would agree of his source material, a consummately white middle class depiction of Englishness. And yet it’s impossible to miss the theme of inclusiveness and acceptance of (illegal) immigrants running through the picture, set against London’s cultural melting pot and more particularly that of Notting Hill. The movie will probably do more for a moderate position – certainly for young malleable minds –  than any heated debate.


Paddington will doubtless earn sequels irrespective of its Stateside performance. Yes, the PG rating is ridiculous (illustrated by the BBFC subsequently moderating its own guidance), but it’s done nothing to quell the universality of its appeal. It isn’t perfect, and there’s definite room for improvement next time out (but one actually gets the impression they will improve things rather than stir-and-repeat), but this is a genuinely smart family movie, and an endearingly goofy one that never speaks down to its target audience and doesn’t fall back on shameless cutesiness.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

The Reverend Thomas says you wet his trousers.

Double Bunk (1961) (SPOILERS) In casting terms, Double Bunk could be a sequel to the previous year’s magnificent School for Scoundrels . This time, Ian Carmichael and Janette Scott (he still almost twice her age) are wedded, and the former continues to make dumb choices. Despite being an unlikely mechanic, Carmichael allows himself to be sold a lemon of a houseboat; last time it was the Nifty Nine. And Dennis Price is once again on hand, trying to fleece him in various ways. Indeed, the screenplay might not be a patch on School for Scoundrels , but with Sid James and the fabulous Liz Fraser also on board, the casting can’t be faulted.