‘Please look after this bear,’ reads the famous label hanging round Paddington’s neck, and this film does that, admirably, handsomely, endearingly, lovingly and not at all sexily. Such a furore, when the film was awarded a PG instead of a U certificate for ‘sexual references’ — oh no! What have they done to the bear? — but it was just the BBFC being somewhat over-enthusiastic, as it would later admit, when it downgraded it to ‘innuendo’. Still, I wanted to put your mind at rest, wanted you to know the bear is safe and this isn’t Paddington: the Sex Pest or anything, even though that’s a film I’d probably quite like to see.
Directed by Paul King, who comes from a television background (Mighty Boosh, Come Fly With Me), this brings Paddington beautifully to life and keeps it faithful to the spirit of the original while skilfully updating it. Paddington doesn’t have much of a back story in the Michael Bond books, but it’s all been cleverly filled in here, with a snappy opening section set in ‘darkest Peru’ and told through sepia newsreels as a dashing British explorer comes across the bears, discovers their flair for languages, introduces them to marmalade, and promises them they will always be welcome in England, if they are of a mind. Years later, a tragedy means Paddington is of a mind, so he stows away on a boat and arrives in London.
Visually, this London is a heightened London and it’s fantastic. It’s London as a pop-coloured picture book. It’s London as Wes Anderson would have styled it, but it’s better, this not being a Wes Anderson film. There are other elements that feel rather second-hand. Narratively, it channels quite a bit of Mary Poppins (the Brown family needs Paddington more than Paddington needs the Brown family, it transpires) and also quite a lot of One Hundred and One Dalmatians as Nicole Kidman’s baddie, a taxidermist who wants to stuff Paddington for the Natural History Museum, is basically just Cruella De Vil. But it doesn’t matter especially and, just to put your mind at rest again, it does not channel anything of Last Tango in Paris. No one, for example, ever gets marmalade up the bum, although that’s also a film I’d probably wish to see. (I might hold out for a bit, but imagine curiosity would get the better of me in the end. )
The main event is, of course, Paddington himself, as voiced by Ben Whishaw, a last-minute replacement for Colin Firth who found he could not ‘do the bear’. Whishaw seems perfectly right, bringing an air of boyish fragility to the character. As for Paddington’s look, he is adorable, with his floppy hat and a face that is not only wondrously expressive, but is so detailed you can see individual hairs as well as every pore on his twitching nose-pad. He is, of course, discovered at Paddington Station, by Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) and their children. Mrs Brown is sweet and kind whereas Mr Brown used to be fun and ride a motorbike but now he works in insurance and sees everything in terms of risk. Will Paddington win him over and put him in touch with his fun side again? Can’t say, as that would be a spoiler, but still: you bet! Yay!
They take Paddington back with them to their fabulously retro home in Notting Hill, which also houses their elderly housekeeper, Mrs Bird, played by Julie Walters as a Scottish version of Mrs Overall, so what’s not to like? Other secondary characters include Peter Capaldi as the Brown’s shifty neighbour, and Jim Broadbent as the lovely owner of a local antique shop who fled the Nazis as a small boy, coming to England on the Kindertransport, so he understands what it’s like to feel alone, unloved and afraid in a foreign city.
Beneath all the slapstick (accident-prone Paddington getting his head stuck in the toilet, and so on) and comic set-pieces (Mr Brown having to dress as a female cleaner and flirt with a security guard — innuendo alert! — to infiltrate the National Geographic Society) lies a serious sociopolitical message about inclusivity. ‘In London’, Paddington muses at one point, ‘everybody is different, so anybody can fit in.’ Diversity is celebrated. A Cuban band pops up all over the place. And Kidman’s baddie is essentially Ukip. Allow a bear to live in one street and ‘soon they’re crawling all over the place’, she hisses. She is such a bitch.
The dullest part of the film is actually the Kidman caper element imposed, I guess, because otherwise this would have been simply a series of episodic misadventures. But there is still so much to enjoy. It is wondrously British. It is fond and tender. There is sufficient in-jokery to wake up the parents. It warms the heart. There are many, many marmalade sandwiches. And, at 85 minutes, it doesn’t push its luck. They’ve done right by the bear. Panic over.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free