On the Silver Screen – Paddington
Michael Bond’s creation Paddington gets the big screen live action treatment in this well put together family film chronicling Paddington Bear’s first days in the City of London.
Paddington is something of an adaptation of the first stories starring the titular bear but it’s been so long since I read them that I really can’t remember how closely the film follows those stories. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter as the film more than stands alone as an entertaining story in his own right.
The story begins with an explorer named Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) discovering a rare species of bear in 1940s Darkest Peru. After his life is saved by them he decides against killing one to take home as a specimen and gets to know them. It turns out that these bears can talk and learn about London from him. Years later when an Earthquake destroys their home Paddington’s Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Saunton) send him to live in London in the hope that a family will be kind enough to put him up.
This is basically where the central conflict of the story comes from. The bears have only heard about London through accounts told to them by Clyde which gives them something of an unrealistic view of the city. Not to mention the fact that their information is decades out of date. Cleverly Paul King’s screenplay uses this fact to provide commentary on how much London and the people in it have changed since the 1940s. Paddington becomes the avatar to explore these differences as the values he holds are very old fashioned. Contrasting Paddington’s old fashioned values with the setting of a modern London is an inspired choice and works really well as a central theme of the film.
Paddington is polite and well mannered while affording everyone he encounters with respect. He doesn’t ignore anyone even if they are unpleasant to him and very much sets an example for how people should behave. I was very impressed with Ben Whishaw’s performance that imbues Paddington with a gentle and well spoken demeanor. It seems to be a blessing that Colin Firth backed out of the project as Whishaw is more in line with how I expect Paddington to sound.
Paddington’s characterisation is very much in line with how I remember the original stories in general. He eats lots of Marmalade and his clumsiness is completely intact and provides some great laughs in the film throughout. Some of the scenes came very close to being cringe-worthy in how much the damage he was causing was escalating but it was nicely curtailed before that could happen. The “fish out of water” elements of the story are very well done and there are some great laughs where he takes signs completely literally. The CGI work on him just looks fantastic as well, the effects company really outdone themselves.
The rest of the cast are no slouch either. Hugh Bonneville’s Mr. Brown is a fantastic character who goes through a fairly standard character arc from being uptight to recapturing his youth and being more reckless. The execution is so good that the predictability of this arc doesn’t matter and Bonneville plays the character with so much dry British with that I couldn’t help but laugh at how over protective he was.
Sally Hawkins plays his wife Mrs. Brown. She is the complete opposite of her husband and connects with Paddington through her compassionate nature and her imaginative curiosity. She is constantly on his side and provides a human voice of support in his struggle to find a place to belong. Her comic timing is spot on and her aloofness is incredibly funny.
Jonathan and Judy Brown (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris) are also really good characters. Thankfully they weren’t annoying like many child characters and held their own against the rest of the talented cast. Both of them have their mini character arcs within the film and manage to get a few laughs out of how awkward Paddington makes life for them. Julie Walters also provides a hilarious turn as housekeeper Mrs. Bird.
The central antagonist comes from Nicole Kidman’s Millicent who is just note perfect as a villain in a kids film. She’s very over the top evil for no real reason -though her motivations are made clearer towards the end- and Kidman is clearly having a blast hamming it up in this role. She is present enough to feel like a credible threat but never crosses into being really scary. Think of her as a defanged Cruella De Vil as she is vocal about her objective but never really seems all that threatening. This character is probably the weakest element of the film but Kidman makes up for that with a memorable performance that elevates her -at times- thinly written character. Her interactions with reluctant henchman Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) are really cleverly written and I got a kick out of how persistently useless Mr. Curry was with his entire motivation being that his neighbours annoy him. We’ve all known that neighbour who needs to know everyone’s business.
As I’ve said above there are plenty of laughs in this film but the best joke would have to be not one person seeming the least bit surprised or shocked when they encounter a talking bear. I would think that’s not an everyday event in London and that someone would be taken aback by this. It’s probably an additional commentary on how little Londoners pay attention to those around them. In general there are plenty of affectionate jabs at London in this film. None of it is taken too seriously but they will seem appropriate to anyone who knows anything about the city.
If there’s any criticism for this film it’s that it feels a little too short. The narrative is so tightly packed with story and characters that there’s almost no time to catch your breath throughout. Millicent could have had a few more scenes to beef up her villainous presence for one. Perhaps another 10-15 minutes on the running time could have allowed some of the elements to be further fleshed out but the narrative as presented is really nicely put together and proper respect is given to the popular children’s character. This film is definitely one for both kids and adults to enjoy as there’s plenty in there for both.