I met Paddington the Bear at a very tender moment in my life. I had been moved to London from Sydney at age seven, an only child, with no friends in my new city and a total sense of displacement. My parents immediately bought me a Paddington Bear, who became my fast friend. I could relate to his story, coming to London from across the planet (Paddington is sent to London on a ship from Darkest Peru, alone, and seeking a family to live with). We were kindred souls. I loved the books, the animated television series, and I was not going to be happy if this big screen version wasn’t appropriately respectful.
I had nothing to worry about. Director Paul King is obviously a true fan and he’s made a true and wonderful Paddington movie that tells the origin story and then adds a plot element that is entertaining and never too greedy. The vast majority of the screen time, rightly, concerns Paddington and his relationship to London and his new family, the Browns. The themes and concerns of Michael Bond’s original series of books and television shows are all there, and the personalities are too.
The big theme, of course – and it always has been – is acceptance of difference (read: racial tolerance) and specifically of refugees. Paddington, as a bear sent to London with a note around his neck saying “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR,” is evocative of actual methods used to deal with displaced children in England during WW2, and the expanding metaphor is obvious. Nobody in the film – no passers-by, no neighbours – sees a bear walking down the street, but they do see someone “else,” and they, like all of us, react differently depending on their own reserves of tolerance and acceptance. Bond’s books and TV shows took on all the post war immigration, and the movie doesn’t need to really update anything to take in all the worldwide refugee issues since the 1970s (when Paddington reigned supreme). Tt’s all there. Indeed, it’s laid on strongly, which I liked. Even the youngest kids in the audience couldn’t fail to hear the message.
Adults will enjoy plenty of jokes aimed squarely at them and also the comic action set-pieces, of which there are many, because they’re so spectacularly and wittily mounted. Paddington was always getting into scrapes, and he does so here, including a chase of a pickpocket through London that is simply spectacular, hilarious, and even moving. In fact, those are three good words for the whole film.
The acting is all spot-on. It’s loaded with English thesps (I can’t tell you who Michael Gambon played, but I saw his name in the credits at the end, so he must have voiced an elder bear in the film’s early scenes) but it’s all about Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as the Browns, and they’re both perfect. Hawkins has more smile in her eyes than any actor I know, just right for Mrs. Brown, a beacon of instant acceptance, while Bonneville, in a Colin Firth-type role, plays the statistician who needs to listen to his heart as well as his head, a rock of ice who simply melts over the course of the film.
Firth, famously, was gently fired from voicing Paddington when he kept sounding too – well, old – and Ben Whishaw does a fine job. I can vaguely remember Paddington’s voice from the TV series, but Whishaw’s works. As does the CGI creation of visual Paddington. He’s less “cartoon-cute” than the bear in the books and TV series, presumably the better to blend in with his human co-stars, and that works, too. He’s in almost every scene, getting into scrapes, bumbling, spinning, eating, growling, fumbling and… always eating. He’s delightful and gorgeous but never “adorable,” and that works best of all. Paddington is not a baby or a puppy. He’s a fifty-something refugee bear who’s just trying to understand the ways of his adopted culture, and fit in without losing his own identity.