A British icon, 'Paddington' enjoys worldwide praise

Susan King
Los Angeles Times

Paul King, the writer and director of the new British family film "Paddington," recalled the dread that came over people's faces when he mentioned he was doing a movie about the adorable young bear that has enchanted children for nearly six decades.

People were anxious, King said, that their childhood memories of author Michael Bond's sweet and comical adventures of the young Peruvian bear who finds himself at London's Paddington Station would be sullied as a computer-generated creature.

"The person I was most nervous about was Michael Bond, really, who is still very much alive and was very much involved in developing the script," King said. "I worked on the film for five years, but he's worked on the stories for 56 years. It was so part of his life, the idea that we would do something that wasn't quite right would have been heartbreaking. I couldn't watch it with him. I was too nervous."

But King received a phone call shortly after the screening to let him know that Bond loved it.

"That was a great day in my life," King recalled.

"I've now seen it twice and can't wait to see it again," said Bond, 89, in an email interview from Britain.

Bond felt his little bear, who keeps his marmalade sandwiches in his scruffy hat, would be in good hands when he met the cast and crew at the beginning of the production.

"Nearly all of them had been brought up on the Paddington books, which was wonderful," he said. "There was a lovely atmosphere from the start."

"Paddington" stars Hugh Bonneville from "Downton Abbey" as the serious-minded patriarch of the Brown family, who takes in the little bear after finding him at Paddington station wearing a tag that says "please look after this bear." Sally Hawkins plays the sweet and trusting Brown matriarch; Julie Walters is their eccentric housekeeper; and Nicole Kidman plays Paddington's nemesis, who wants to make him into a stuffed bear.

British actor Ben Whishaw supplies the voice of Paddington, beautifully capturing the bear's sweetness, humor and innocence.

The comedy, which arrived in L.A. on Friday, is already an international hit, earning more than $120 million overseas in less than two months. "Paddington" grossed an estimated $25.2 million in its first four days in the U.S. and Canada for a surprise second-place showing at the holiday weekend box office, behind "American Sniper" and ahead of the Kevin Hart comedy "The Wedding Ringer."

Earlier this month, "Paddington" received two BAFTA nominations, including best British film. The film has warmed the hearts of critics, scoring an impressive 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Paddington has been the subject of a stage musical and an acclaimed stop-frame animation British TV series featuring the voice of Michael Hordern. Though Bond had been approached on a number of occasions about a feature film, he thought that "the time wasn't right."

Until now.

"In truth, I think the technology has only developed now to a point where you can tell the story," said producer David Heyman ("Harry Potter," "Gravity"), who, like King, grew up with Paddington. (His mother still has his stuffed Paddington bear.)

"You need Paddington to be a character who makes you laugh, makes you cry and you feel you can relate to and care for," Heyman said. "To do that with a digital character is not easy. Ten years ago, it may not have been possible."

King and Heyman wanted the film to not only capture the comedic side of Paddington — he's sort of a Buster Keaton with fur — but also his yearning for acceptance and love.

When King and Heyman began discussing the film, they agreed that they "didn't want to do a film that just kind of used a figure from people's childhoods for the sake of it," King said.

"There are loads of talking animals in children's fiction and comic sort of things, but I always thought the label — please look after this bear — is emblematic of what really works about him. He is an outsider in the world."

King thought those themes were universal. "We want to find a home and acceptance. We want to feel loved. I felt that worked on a personal level. It felt like a warm and positive theme."