As Paddington arrives in US cinemas today, Tony Fyler looks after this bear.
There was much alarm when the initial trailers for the new Paddington movie were revealed. Whether you like the new movie rather depends on whether you’re open to new interpretations of classic children’s programmes, or whether any attempt, however well-intentioned, to update and modernise said classics equates in your mind to raping your childhood and should be consigned to a pestilential dungeon for the rest of time.
Me, I’m a multi-dimensional Paddington fan. Loved the books, adored the stop-motion TV show with the fantastic Michael Hordern voice-work, love the audio readings by Stephen Fry. Paddington is just a fundamentally great idea – young person finds a family, has adventures: where’s the bad?
So it’s probably true to say that I was an easy target for the new Paddington (this time out voiced for youth by Ben Whishaw, who it’s sobering to realise had yet to be born when the stop-motion series aired on TV). But the question is – does it work?
Well, yes it does, if by ‘work’ you mean does it tell the story of a young bear sent to London to find a new life, and learn lessons along the way, to a new young audience, in a way that appeals to them. If you compare and contrast the old stop-motion sequence of Paddington in the bathroom when he arrives in Windsor Gardens with the new one, as seen in the trailers (And yes, I have done the comparison. Frame by frame. What do you mean, ‘get a life’?), what becomes clear is not just how different they are, but how different the audience at which they’re aimed is. There was quite enough mishap and silliness and adorable clumsy-bearness in the stop-motion version, but the modern version plays to an audience of children who are free to find the ‘ick’ factor more socially funny than we were ‘back in my day’ – hence the toothbrush sequence and the toilet-dunking – and more accustomed to building laugh upon laugh upon laugh as the scenarios before them grow more and more grandiose – hence the ultimate indoor surfing sequence. Once you realise the audience the new film is playing to, it all makes much more sense, and if you can tap into your inner child, it’s a fantastic way to spend some time.
The story also addresses modern children by refusing to gloss over tragedy and trauma. In all the other versions, it’s rather quirky that Paddington arrives the way he does, but here, we’re shown his life before being sent from Darkest Peru, and the tragedy that brings that life to a crushing halt. We’re shown loss, and love, and the tenderness of bears all within the first few minutes. And, because the original Paddington stories were designed to be just that – short stories – and to spin a movie-length plot out of them you need to add in another dramatic thread, we’re shown fairly psychotic threat in the form of Nicole Kidman’s Chief Taxidermist, who wants an Ursa Marmaladi (that’s Marmalade Bear to you) for her collection. We’re shown the desperation of grasping loneliness in Peter Capaldi’s Mr Curry – generally just a grumpy man in the other versions, but here played with a sadness that is open to manipulation by beauty. We’re given real notes of sadness when Paddington’s life with the Browns doesn’t seem to be working out, and the emotions of the young intended audience are duly played like a cello as the young, trouble-magnet bear struggles to find his place in both a human family and the big city.
But along with all that, there’s brilliant knockabout fun – Paddington foiling a pickpocket, Paddington playing Home Alone, Paddington and Mr Brown on an adventure (including Hugh Bonneville paying tribute to the legend that was Robin Williams) and Paddington learning from all his new friends and family, including the thoroughly modernised Jonathan and Judy Brown, and Jim Broadbent giving us his ‘middle-of-Eastern-Europe’ accent as the delightful Mr Gruber.
Indeed, it’s not just Broadbent in evidence here – half of Hogwarts seems to have stowed away with Paddington – Imelda Staunton in a more sympathetic role as Aunt Lucy, Michael ‘Dumbledore’ Gambon as Uncle Pastuzo, Julie Walters as Mrs Bird (brought in from the cold, she’s no longer just the housekeeper, but family). In fact, what you have in this movie, ultimately, are the stars of Harry Potter, the Bond movies (via Whishaw), Downton Abbey (via Bonneville) and Doctor Who (via Capaldi), four of the most successful British exports in recent decades, paying tribute to a fifth, because make no mistake, Paddington is as good and as successful as any of them. Some of the scenic and storytelling devices in the movie – the doll’s house and Mr Gruber’s tea train in particular – are so exquisite and magical that even the staunchest grown-up can appreciate the thinking and the skill that’s been wound up in them, and ultimately, the challenge of the film for those of us old enough to remember when Michael Hordern was Paddington is the same challenge issued to Mr Brown in the film – to stop being quite so buttoned-up, grown-up and protective of what is precious to us. Let it off the leash a little bit, and the spirit of the modern Paddington will still get into your heart, the little chaos-magnet from Darkest Peru bringing magic – and just as importantly, manners – to children today, just as he brought it to us when we were small. And if we rise to the challenge, the new Paddington can charm us too.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk