Though not as familiar to American readers as, say, Winnie the Pooh, that small bear from darkest Peru, Paddington Bear (who has a strong preference for marmalade over honey), may soon receive renewed attention in the U.S., thanks to the January 16 release of the movie Paddington. The CGI and live-action family comedy was released in the U.K. on November 23, pulling in $8.5 million at the box office over its opening weekend. The movie stars Nicole Kidman, Hugh Bonneville, and Sally Hawkins, with Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington.
The film, which is produced by David Heyman of Harry Potter fame, and distributed by StudioCanal, largely follows the storyline introduced in Michael Bond’s 26-book series that began in 1958 with A Bear Called Paddington. A spectacled Peruvian bear, who learned about London and how to speak English from an explorer who once visited his home, stows away on a ship (in one of the stories, Bond notes that it was an earthquake that drove Paddington to seek refuge in England, though it isn’t a central focus in the story). The bear arrives at Paddington Station with a tattered suitcase, and wearing a note that says: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” As in the book, the Brown family names the bear Paddington and welcomes the diminutive stranger into their home.
A few modern concessions have been made to bring more action to the screen. New developments to the Paddington storyline include dramatization of the Peruvian earthquake, and the introduction of a villain, played by Nicole Kidman, who has her own nefarious purposes in mind for Paddington: taxidermy.
As is often the case when a beloved children’s book character makes the transition from page to screen, media sources in the U.K. speculated on whether the film would honor the original spirit of Bond’s character: the very polite yet rather righteous bear, who is prone to expressing his disapproval over perceived injustices via a “hard stare.” And in the weeks leading up to the release, the film stirred up a decent amount of controversy – notably, concerning the British Board of Film Classification’s decision to assign the movie a PG rating based on “dangerous behavior, mild threat, mild sex references and mild bad language.” Has Paddington developed a wild and randy side in the 21st century? . The dangerous behavior cited by the British Board allegedly includes a scene in which Paddington hides inside a refrigerator, and the sexual reference occurs when a man flirts with British actor Hugh Bonneville who is cross-dressed as a cleaning lady. After the film’s distributor raised objections, the British Board changed the phraseology from “sexual references” to “innuendo.”
‘Paddington’: An Immigrant Story?
With the release of the film, some critics in the U.K. have analyzed the sometimes overt allusions to immigration in the film. Bond has frequently stated that, in conceiving of Paddington’s character, he was inspired by the experiences of immigrants. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Bond reflected on the many WWII refugee children he would see passing through Reading Station in Berkshire when he was himself a child: “Trains came into Reading full of evacuees.... They were all these tiny tots with all their possessions in a small suitcase with a label round their neck. The label is important because it says ‘Thank you.’ I remember their labels... refugees really are the saddest sight,” he said. In the series, Paddington’s best friend, Mr. Gruber, is a Hungarian immigrant.
In a review for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw noted the “xenophobic grumpiness” of the Browns’ neighbor, Mr. Curry. And a U.K. immigration lawyer chimed in after seeing the film with his children: “Among immigration lawyers Paddington is a walking, talking, ursine pin-up for humanising our work,” Yeo said. He went on to offer a thorough (if tongue-in-cheek) “legal analysis” of Paddington’s circumstances as an immigrant in England: “His lack of apparent financial independence and his unlawful immigration status weigh against him, and his private and family life would be given reduced weight because it was established at a time when his status was precarious,” read a typical passage.
Luckily for Paddington, he doesn’t end up in an immigration detention space, as would be the fate for many human undocumented immigrants in Paddington’s position, Yeo suggests. Luckily for the Paddington film, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. And expectations were high among critics who grew up with the Paddington books. “Paddington was a key part of my childhood and ‘woe betide anyone who screwed it up,’ I thought,” reported a reviewer for the Huffington Post U.K. His verdict: “Paddington is one of those rare movies which makes you glad to be alive.”
Some critics have noticed a distinctly British flavor to the film; Robbie Collin of the Telegraph called the film “enormously funny in an unmistakably British way.” Will American viewers be similarly charmed by the Peruvian-turned-British bear’s screen debut? Here, across the pond, those new to Paddington have been seeing a lot more of the furry wayfarer . Harper has released five movie tie-in titles as well as several newly repackaged editions of the classic books. Paddington has recently been seen soaring above the streets of Manhattan, joining the line-up of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons this year.
Regardless of his British accent, Paddington’s sanguine attitude toward life may very well speak to Americans as well. Perhaps most importantly, how does Bond like the film? The author had considerable trepidations about whether Paddington would be properly cared for on screen: “I was worrying I’d be lying awake thinking: ‘I’ve let Paddington down.’ Letting other people take control of your character was like letting your child go off in somebody else’s car. You hope for the best, but you brace yourself for the worst,” Bond told the Telegraph.
But Bond loved the film and reports that he is sleeping well. “The world moves at such a pace these days,” he reflected to the newspaper. “But Paddington is never rushed. He’s a small person, yet he always comes out on top and in the film he’s done it again.”