Certificate: PG (it’s the mild innuendo, you know!)
Director: Paul King
Major Players: Ben Wishaw (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins
Out Of Five: 4
National treasures should have “handle with care” labels attached to them, but rarely do. They can be anything from a performer to a building and anything else you care to name in between but what they all have in common is how much they’re loved. And when the treasure concerned has been loved since childhood, those feelings are even stronger. Paddington Bear is a case in point: uniquely, he does have a label round his neck, asking that we look after him. And now he’s made it to the big screen.
The first story about the friendly – and talking – bear from Darkest Peru appeared in 1958, so anybody in their late 50s or less could have grown up with him. And that includes today’s children, because his appeal continues and can only grow again as a result of his movie called, of course, Paddington. Which makes it a film with potentially a very wide appeal. And, even more appropriately, he finds himself in a movie that’s rammed full of national treasures.
The Paddington series was made up of shorter stories so the film’s makers have had to expand on them to create a feature length film. Once we’ve learnt about Paddington’s (the voice of Ben Wishaw) early years in Peru, there’s an earthquake and he decides to stow away to London, where he expects a warm welcome. He doesn’t get it until he meets the Brown family at Paddington station and they take him home, initially for one night. While he stays with him they investigate his story, but he also catches the eye of the evil taxidermist, Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who also happens to be the daughter of the explorer who discovered him in Peru! Then the race is on to save him from her clutches.
The film is full of humour and it’s universal. There’s plenty of the physical variety – certainly Paddington’s antics in the Brown’s bathroom, from cleaning his ears with toothbrushes to sailing down the spiral staircase in the bath on a tidal wave of water – which will appeal to the kids, but it’ll also have the adults laughing as well. More specifically for the oldies, there’s the opening sequences set in Darkest Peru, with Paddington, his uncle and aunt (voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton) being discovered by an explorer. They’re in black and white, done in a Monty Python/Ripping Yarns style and are utterly priceless! Or, for those with a taste for the slightly more obscure gag, there’s the plaster of Paris foot at the bottom of that spiral staircase. Because it’s the foot of the stairs! And I have that on good authority from the producer and director.
But this being 2014, we’ve moved on from the traditional hand-drawn Paddington to a CGI one and, with Oscar winners Framestore on board, you expect something special. Visually, he’s certainly a Paddington for the 21st century, with fur that you could happily run your fingers through. Yet he doesn’t lose any of his endearing characteristics – good natured but terribly clumsy, getting him into all sorts of trouble and creating many of the laughs. Plus, of course, he’s a bear in a human world, clueless about a most of it and prompting even more affectionate laughter. Even the old gag about “dogs must be carried on the escalator” gets refreshed.
Despite all the technology, this is one national treasure that’s in safe hands. And it’s illustrated by a small but telling cameo when Paddington arrives in London. The taxi ride to the Brown’s home goes via the scenic route (according to cabbie Matt Lucas!) and they pass an elderly gentleman who raises a glass to the new arrival. He looks momentarily like J R Hartley from the legendary Yellow Pages commercial. Actually, he’s Michael Bond, the originator of Paddington. Votes of confidence don’t come much bigger.
As for the human national treasures, the cast is crammed with them. There’s Julie Walters as Mrs Bird the housekeeper, essentially a less wobbly Mrs Overall with a Scottish accent. Jim Broadbent’s German refugee, Mr Gruber, runs an antique shop. And those approaching that status include Hugh Bonneville as the uptight Mr Brown who turns out to have hidden, less conventional depths and Doctor Who himself, Peter Capaldi as a crabby neighbour.
Paddington has benefited from plenty of pre-publicity. Colin Firth was originally cast as the voice of the bear, only to drop out and be replaced by Ben Wishaw. The story goes that Firth himself was first to realise that his voice wasn’t quite right and, if that’s the case, he did the film a favour because Wishaw is a good fit: it’s a slightly younger voice and, because the actor isn’t quite as stellar as the Oscar-winning Firth, you don’t see his face in your mind’s eye. The voice truly does appear to come from Paddington. And then there was all the kerfuffle over the film’s certificate. It’s a PG because of what is now referred to as “mild innuendo”, although I couldn’t spot it. If the BBFC had in mind the scene where Hugh Bonneville dresses up in drag and is chatted up by a security guard, it’s no worse than anything you’d see in panto!
If the film has a weakness, it’s the taxidermy plot involving arch villainess Nicole Kidman. Given that the rest of the film has so much charm and inventiveness, you can’t help but think that the makers could have come up with something stronger and more convincing. As it stands, it’s something of a Friday story.
That aside – and it is a genuine weakness – this is the best Christmas film this year. So far, anyway. It may not be decked with holly or covered in glitter, but its theme of homelessness and strangers in foreign lands chimes perfectly with the season. Paddington is ideal festive family fodder. In fact, it’s 2014’s Christmas bear necessity!
Paddington is released around the UK on Friday, 28 November.