There’s something to be said for the animated classics. For anyone who grew up on Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, or even Charlie Brown, the animated worlds where these characters lived were more than mere settings for a story. To generations of children, these fictional places were extensions of home, landscapes where they could escape for the afternoon and hang out with characters who weren’t quite adults, and as a result were just young enough, soft enough, and approachable enough to become friends of a sort.
Add Paddington Bear to the list. First seen in Michael Bond’s beloved children’s book, A Bear Called Paddington, in 1958, this unassuming bear with a penchant for getting into hilarious yet ultimately benign trouble has spawned a generation’s worth of adventures. Bond ultimately penned two dozen books, selling 35 million around the world in over 40 languages.
More Than Books
Paddington’s appeal wasn’t limited to the page, either. He has starred in three separate television series spanning four decades: Paddington, the original British series, launched in 1975, and rather uniquely featured stop-motion animation against a simply-drawn backdrop. It was followed in 1989 by Paddington Bear, a distinctly American production from Hanna-Barbera that returned to traditional two-dimensional animation. Finally, Cinar, a Canadian production house, brought The Adventures of Paddington Bear to the small screen in 1997. The final series ended its run in 2002, a full 44 years after the first book was published.
The character was one of the first to embrace the now-commonly accepted strategy of cross-promotion across multiple product lines. Kids who were tucked in to stories from his books could also curl up with an actual stuffed Paddington while wearing themed pyjamas under properly branded posters. I think my older sister may have an ancient, much-dented Paddington Bear lunch pail buried in an old box she liberated from my parents’ basement before they sold the house.
If it all seemed to be a softer sell than today’s kid-targeted franchises, that’s because it actually was. Beyond the patently obvious ability to walk, talk and reason, Paddington had no superpowers. He did not fly or run quickly – if at all. He didn’t take on evil villains or initiate massive, screen-filling explosions. He got into the kind of trouble most kids could relate to. And he did so with charm and somewhat stilted, non-threatening grace. He taught them the basic virtues of politeness – his origin story of being found in the middle of bustling London by his eventual-adoptive family, the Browns, with a label around his neck, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
Fully 57 years after he first saw the light of literary day, Paddington Bear is back, this time on the big screen. Simply named Paddington, the new movie places a CGI-animated bear in the middle of a live action world. The animation is subtle enough to register the emotive raised eyebrows of this red-hat-wearing, well-meaning bear, and convincing enough to erase any distinctions between the computer-generated animal and his very real surroundings.
Paddington is voiced by Ben Whishaw, who in another very different acting life plays Q in the current (aka Daniel Craig) series of James Bond movies. Colin Firth was originally set to voice the bear, but he withdrew because he said he didn’t feel his voice sounded right for the role. His departure from the project prompted a midstream reboot akin to Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. Other voice actors in the film include Imelda Staunton, who plays the benevolent Aunt Lucy, and Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo), who first launch Paddington on his epic journey from his homeland in Peru to London.
Paddington is also surrounded by a who’s who of live-action talent, including Downton Abbey’s lead, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi. Nicole Kidman plays against type as the movie’s wicked witch-like nemesis.
Keeping It British
The movie’s release schedule reinforces its very British legacy, and the lengths to which its production team, led by director Paul King and producer David Heyman, went to ensure Paddington properly honored his heritage. Paddington made its global debut in the UK on November 28, 2014, fully six weeks before it hit North American screens, on January 16, 2015. The movie further respected its history by including Paddington author Michael Bond in a small on-camera role.
In an interview with The Telegraph last year, Bond worried that he would somehow fall short of the mark.
“Before, there was a certain amount of trepidation, he said. “I was worrying I’d be lying awake thinking: ‘I’ve let Paddington down.’”
Critics, who have showered the film with praise since it first hit British theatres, confirm that Bond need not have worried. A sequel is already in the planning stages, and Paddington Bear’s almost-six-decade run shows no signs of slowing down. Bond seems incapable of letting his beloved bear down, and generations of children and no-longer-children are the better for it.