Marmalade sandwiches, an inquisitive nature and a duffle coat.
These are the quintessentials of Paddington Bear, a quintessentially English story from Michael Bond that’s been updated for the big screen and for Christmas 2014.
James Bond’s Q aka Ben Whishaw is the voice of the bear, who’s forced to abandon darkest Peru after an earthquake destroys the home where he lives with his aunt and uncle. Having been discovered years ago by a quintessentially English explorer, Paddington’s been imbued with a love of all things English and believes that’s where his future lies.
Abandoned at Paddington station (the metaphor for the displaced children of World War II freshly ensconced in your mind), the bear finds solace with the Brown family – its soft matriarch (Sally Hawkins, in endearing form) and its rather unimpressed patriarch (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville in frowningly frumpy mode).
But within hours of arriving in London, Paddington catches the eye of Millicent (an icy and somewhat wooden Nicole Kidman) who’s got plans for this little bear…
Paddington loses some of the sweet sophistication that blessed the books and the 1970s TV series narrated by Michael Horden in its transition to the 21st Century. In one scene in a bathroom the bear goes into full-on comedy scapegoat that would have been blessed with naivety back then but is now a series of CGI silliness aimed squarely at the youngsters.
It’s a shame because King’s uses some truly stunning directorial flourishes to great effect – in one, to illustrate the passing of time the Brown’s downstairs is decorated with trees and blossom on their walls which wafts away leaving winter-time branches. Elsewhere Paddington watches a black and white film of his home and walks into the image, meshing with the Peruvian rainforests. These are truly remarkable touches in an otherwise relatively normal film.
The much-derided innuendo that caused an uproar in the UK smacks merely of traditional pantomime and seems a trite accusation to level at it.
Whishaw proves the perfect casting choice for the bear with his vocals mixing up innocence, childish naivety and misunderstanding that may have stood out more with the original choice of Colin Firth who consciously uncoupled from the movie. Equally Bonneville channels the usual depiction of an uptight Londoner in a city which always rains but somehow looks beautiful in the continual cinematic stereotyping of the capital, but he’s likeable enough.
However, Kidman’s icy wooden presence is an unwelcome addition to the bland family movie – while there has to be a villain in this origin story, she sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to some awful writing and lack of anything. Certainly, the denouement at the British museum feels formulaic and betrays some of the sparkle of what goes before.
Overall, this new Paddington may offend some fans of the original series and its innocent ways, but there’s a reverence to the source material and a pleasant warmth in this unmistakably British bland flick that will ensure it’s the go-to-movie for families over the festive period.