Paddington has been a huge hit and it is largely deserved. It needs to be a hit since StudioCanal are reported to have invested $50 million in its production after Warner Bros. pulled out of the project set up with their Harry Potter partner David Heyman in 2007. Heyman then teamed up with TF1 Films in France – with StudioCanal taking UK and French distribution. Harvey Weinstein has the North American rights. Heyman via Heyday Films also produced Gravity.
I’m too old and too distant from children’s literature to know anything about Paddington as a character but I can do the research and it’s clear that this film adaptation should appeal to a large international fanbase. The books by Michael Bond first appeared in 1958 and have now sold 30 million copies globally in 40 languages. The central character is an orphan bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who travels to London where he hopes to find the home promised to his family by a British explorer/adventurer who ‘discovered’ the bears in the 1930s. This bear speaks beautiful English learned from recordings and is ‘named’ when he is found by the Brown family sitting with his suitcase on Paddington Station in London. They take him home and the adventure begins. (Bond is said to have had taken the idea for the books from the stories of evacuation of children from the UK’s major cities during the Second World War.)
As far as I can work out, the film’s script by Paul King and Hamish McColl draws on several published stories and will have some ‘authenticity’ for fans. King also directed the film. His background is in directing theatre, film and TV shows featuring comic talents such as Richard Ayoade and Matt Lucas (who has a cameo in Paddington). McColl has written two of Rowan Atkinson’s blockbuster comedy films. What King and McColl have come up with in Paddington is a comedy with appeal to children and adults which grapples interestingly with fantasy, parodies of well-known films and an odd but intriguing take on historical time periods. This latter is a result of the long production history of the books and the major social (and aesthetic) changes that have taken place over fifty years and more. The James Bond films face the same problem but they attempt to place Bond – a 1950s character – firmly in the contemporary world. Paddington is, for me, more interesting and more successful.
There have been TV series based on the books, two North American, one British, but all animations. Paddington is a live action feature in which the bear is created by a combination of animatronics and CGI. Framestore the UK company that helped produce Gravity had a major role in Paddington. The bear is voiced by Ben Whishaw in a very accomplished performance and everything about the presentation of Paddington works flawlessly as far as I can see.
The weakest part of the film is probably the action narrative featuring Nicole Kidman as a kind of Cruella de Vil character who is out to stuff Paddington to complete her collection of exotic animals. This involves borrowing the heist scene from Mission Impossible, a chase through the Natural History Museum and what can only be described as various fetish outfits for Ms Kidman (there is definitely a shoe fetishist involved somewhere!). The earlier comic sequences worked much better for me.
The main interest in the film outside of its obvious broad appeal is what it contributes to the current discourse about immigration. The whole narrative concerns the arrival in the UK of a migrant bear who is expecting a warm welcome but who finds that his first ‘host’, Mr Brown considers only offering him temporary asylum unless he can find a relative of the explorer who promised him a welcome – otherwise he will be packed off to an ‘institution’. This all sounds very familiar. Two other aspects of the scenario are also worth mentioning. The original ‘invitation’ to the UK dates from the period of Empire and Mr Brown’s attitude is not matched by that of his wife and children who quickly become Paddington’s supporters. Young people in the UK are generally seen as less likely to be anti-immigrant than older people.
The migration narrative is of course caught up in the conundrum about the time period setting. The most problematic representation in the film is a product of this. The Browns live in the area of Bayswater/Westbourne Grove/Notting Hill. In 1958 this was one of the London districts in which ‘West Indian’ (as they were known then) migrants first settled and Notting Hill was the site of an infamous ‘race riot’ in that year. In the present film a group of colourfully-dressed ‘calypsonians’ pop up at various points in the narrative performing songs on street corners and in alleyways. One song is a version of Lord Kitchener’s calypso ‘London is the place for me’ which he sang when the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury in 1948 with the first post-war migrant workers from the Caribbean. The story behind the soundtrack is told in this BBC Report. I enjoyed these musical performances but they do highlight the odd mixture of the modern and the historical and I do wonder if this is not an offensive representation? I don’t remember seeing many other examples in the film of London’s population diversity. London in 2014 is one of the most cosmopolitan and multiracial cities in the world but Paddington generally focuses on the middle-class white London of classic children’s books. The film is a fantasy not a social realist drama – but what do London children from Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds in London make of it? Just a thought.
The ‘live cast’ including Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the Brown parents embrace their roles with gusto and overall Paddington works very well. I’m sure it will do good business in the global market and I’m intrigued to see how they develop the story and the characters in the inevitable sequel. It might be worth comparing Paddington to Aardman’s animations such as Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit films which represent the same timeless and nostalgic view of British culture.