April 7, 2015

Paddington (2014)

An immigrant travels to the United Kingdom and finds it a cold and unwelcoming place. I’m not certain that’s the message that was entirely intended by Paddington, but it’s certainly the message that I largely took away from it.

This film adaptation of Michael Bond’s legendary children’s novels is rich in humour and warm performances, but it’s also not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it. The result is a curious mixture: idealistic enough in part to be one of those essentially and proudly British films, but also cynical enough to admit that the ideal of British culture may not be as accurate or as real as some might think. All up it's a tremendously satisfying film: it's narrative may be somewhat simplistic and truncated, but its characters and its attention to detail are first-rate.

The film follows a talking Peruvian bear (Ben Whishaw) who is reluctantly adopted from London's Paddington Station by Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) at the behest of his wife (Sally Hawkins) and children While attempting to locate the explorer who first told his aunt and uncle to visit London, Paddington is targeted for stuffing by a museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman).

This film was always going to rise or fall on the back of its title character, and he is thankfully rather marvellous. The iconic profile of Paddington, a talking Peruvian bear with a passionate love for marmalade sandwiches, is retained in its entirely, yet it’s been combined with a wonderful photorealistic look and animation. Ben Whishaw performs the voice, and he’s absolutely perfect at it. The original plan was to have Colin Firth perform the role; having heard Whishaw’s version I honestly can’t see how Firth could have made it work. There’s a youthful tone and a gentle optimism that he brings to it that really brings Paddington to life.

The supporting cast is also first-rate, including some genuinely talented actors like Bonneville and Hawkins. Nicole Kidman is not an actor I have ever particularly appreciated, but she plays her fairly one-note villain reasonably enough. Peter Capaldi makes a small appearance as the Brown's nosey, fairly unlikeable neighbour Mr Curry.

It's in one scene between Kidman and Capaldi that intrigued me most, and it's one likely to fly over the target audience's collective heads. She warns him about the risk of letting a bear into the neighbourhood, because soon there will be more bears, going to school with human children, taking human jobs, and overrunning the country. It's a slightly jaw-dropping scene, parodying the deeply unpleasant anti-immigration and racist rhetoric coming from some quarters of UK society. As an adult viewer of a children's film I appreciated the extra layer of depth.

Director Paul King helms the film with a great visual eye and an idiosyncratic vein of humour. It's not a surprise to see he directed all three seasons of the BBC's The Mighty Boosh, since there are elements of that series' kind of offbeat comedy.

As for the film overall, it's funny where it needs to be and heart-warming where it needs to be. It's short, but likely of great appeal to young audiences. Most importantly it's a great adaptation of a series of books that many readers - myself included - remember with great fondness.

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