It was in 1958 when BBC TV cameraman Michael Bond moonlighted as a writer and wrote his first Paddington the Bear book. The story goes that on Christmas Eve, 1956, a teddy bear was sitting alone on a shelf in a store not far from London’s Paddington station. Michael Bond bought the stuffed teddy as a last minute gift for his wife and suddenly became inspired to write. Within ten days he had a book. Within two years he had a published book. It only took a further fifty-six years until a full-length movie was made. And if you look closely at the closing credits of the new Paddington film you’ll see it lists the author in the part of the Kindly Gentleman.
Paddington has been a cherished institution in Britain for years. The books are somewhat known in America, but for the uninitiated here’s a quick primer. Paddington the talking bear (perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw after Colin Firth pulled out) arrives in England as a stowaway having traveled all the way from deepest, darkest Peru. Wearing only his old hat and carrying only his old suitcase, the young bear with a taste for marmalade sandwiches finds himself at London’s Paddington train station where he patiently waits for someone, anyone, to pick him up and adopt him. Written on a label hanging around his neck are the words Please Look After This Bear, Thank You. The Brown family finds him sitting alone and decides to do what any normal London family would do when finding a young bear sitting on a suitcase alone late at night at a train station: they take him home. And because of the location, they call him Paddington.
As a footnote, Bond originally wrote that Paddington came from deepest, darkest Africa, but his editor had to tell him there are no bears in Africa, so darkest Peru it was.
The film doesn’t base its story on any particular book; it takes the characters and the location and invents a new one. It also offers a very funny introductory, scratchy black and white newsreel at the beginning where for the first time we get to see where Paddington used to live, where his taste for marmalade developed and how it came to be that the bear from the jungles of darkest Peru could speak English. By accident, an intrepid explorer called Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) stumbles across an undiscovered species of bear and befriends them. When the youngest bear mumbles two syllables in English and clumsily utters “Lon – don,” the explorer is astounded. “London?” he replies. “Good Lord! Now say Stratford Upon Avon.”
Some years later, having heard so much about this wonderful land called London, and having learned English from the many recorded old 78’s left in the jungle by the British explorer, the bear with the floppy hat leaves Peru, stows away, and heads for England. From there, the film picks up where the books start, at Paddington station in front of a Lost and Found store.
The biggest surprise of this big screen adventure is just how genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny the film is. It’s not simply the slapstick, though the sight of Paddington spiraling down the stairs of the Brown family residence riding in a bathtub while a virtual Niagra Falls spills out of the bathroom and pours throughout the house is a hoot; it’s the dialog. Some of the laughs are gentle. When Mr. Brown (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) calls his insurance company regarding new coverage for Paddington he answers a series of questions regarding what kind of bear he has. “Grizzly?” responds Mr. Brown on the phone. “Not particularly, though I haven’t seen him in the mornings.” Then there are bigger laughs. When Paddington is feared kidnapped and Mrs. Brown (a delightful Sally Hawkins) offers a description to the police, she tells them he’s wearing a red hat and a blue duffel coat, he’s small and adds as an afterthought, “And he’s a bear.” The policeman shakes his head. “That’s not much to go on.”
The London in the film doesn’t exist. It’s a timeless, fairy tale London, beautifully shot in widescreen by Erik Wilson and decorated with a palette of Christmas reds on clothes, buildings, walls, chairs, and salt and pepper pots. Even the red of a public pay phone appears somehow redder. Plus the setting seems to have no particular date in mind. London looks modern but no one has a cell phone – rotary land-lines and pay phones only – no one texts, plus desk top computers have clunky monitors displaying green letters in DOS. A calendar on the wall of an office reads December but the year is missing.
Considering how beloved the character is, the idea of a film version was always a concern, but the end result is a total, warm-hearted joy. The new, expanded plot regarding a villainous Nicole Kidman who wants to capture the bear and stuff it to be displayed in a glass booth at the British Natural History Museum may cause Paddington purists a moment to pause, but shouldn’t. The adventure to rescue the Peruvian fur ball may not come directly from any of Michael Bond’s books but the affair is both exciting and funny and the whole film should find you with the biggest of grins across your face, regardless of age. Paddington is magical.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 95 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)