For his debut on the big screen, the ever-polite Paddington Bear is voiced by the infinitely adaptable Ben Whishaw, well remembered as the poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star.
And he’s a great success – whereas Colin Firth, the original choice, would have sunk the picture. The Firth voice resonates with authority and maturity, the last qualities you need in a small, orphaned and supposedly lovable talking animal. Whishaw, on the other hand, gets it about right. His Paddington is bouncy without displaying any Disneyesque glibness. You get the feeling he’s gallantly trying to make the best of things even though he has no idea what’s going on – which is exactly how it should be.
We meet Paddington first in the forests of “darkest Peru”, happily living with his Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy (Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton), who are Anglophiles thanks to a happy encounter with an unusually empathetic English explorer in their youth. As a result, they’ve infused their little nephew with a desire to see London. So when Uncle Pastuzo dies and Aunt Lucy goes to off to the bears’ retirement home, Paddington sets out. But homesickness soon sets in and by the time the Brown family chance on him at Paddington station, he’s at his lowest point – sitting forlornly on the platform, wearing a red hat and a label with the words: “Please Look After This Bear. Thank you.”
It’s a poignant image. You don’t have to look at it twice to see a comparison with the refugees of today. Even so, you’re unlikely to get too serious about this. It just makes Paddington seem even more relevant than he was in 1958 when his creator, Michael Bond, produced the first of his many bestsellers about him.
The film’s director, Paul King, has put together a cast who make a happy marriage of predictability and professionalism. In other words, it’s typecasting done with flair.
Julie Walters shows up as the Browns’ housekeeper – the kind of elderly eccentric that Walters has been playing since her early days doing sitcoms with Victoria Wood. As Mr Brown, Hugh Bonneville employs some of the stuffiness of his Downton Abbey gig and adds a well-judged dose of self-mockery, while Sally Hawkins shades her eternal sunniness with a well-meaning daffiness that keeps her teenage daughter, Judy (Madeleine Harris), in a perpetual state of embarrassment. Her son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), is more tolerant. After all, she’s his main supporter in his wish to give Paddington a permanent home.
There are some ingeniously designed and executed sight gags, the best of which revolve around Paddington’s conscientious efforts to master the finer points of city living. Taking charge of the suspense element is Nicole Kidman as a Cruella De Vil-type character with a passion for taxidermy. And most important, the fact that Paddington is a wholly CGI creation doesn’t detract at all from his anthropomorphic cuddliness.