Movie Images Courtesy of StudioCanal/Heyday Films
Why are some re-imaginings celebrated as innovative and beautiful, while others are labeled as tawdry and exploitative? That’s the question that is gamboling through my mind as I ponder the critical reaction to “Paddington 2” versus “Peter Rabbit.” As I mentioned in last week’s blog, “Peter Rabbit” is an abomination of the mischievous Beatrix Potter creation. Rather than being clever, the new movie version is sly and devious. Instead of being a worthy opponent to Farmer McGregor, he is dangerous, devious, and deadly. It is as if the Potter bunny has become Ted Bundy: charming on the surface appearance, but deranged and psychopathic in his heart!
Some of the reactions to last week’s blog came to me on my personal Facebook page, as well as to my website e-mail. A common lamentation was that American movie studios destroy British properties. I have to take a half-step exception to that: it’s not just U.S. studios. In the case of “Peter Rabbit,” it was a joint destruction by SONY Pictures and Columbia Studios, joined by Screen Australia and Screen NSW. So, no, it wasn’t the United States alone that converted the adorable rabbit into an anti-social ticking time bomb. It was the U.S. and Australia.
With “Paddington 2,” the reviews have been across-the-board fantastic. It received a 100% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike Peter, whom the AV Club memorably denounced as becoming a cinematic “insufferable d*ck” — and it’s not the word “duck” — the Paddington sequel has been roundly applauded. In fact, it has racked up an enormous amount of BAFTA award nominations in England, the UK’s version of the Oscars. I think my British readers are onto something: “Paddington 2,” like its predecessor, was lovingly brought to the screen by British filmmakers, assisted by French production backers. The intent of the screenwriters and director was to make a movie that modernized the characters, but did not eliminate the traits that made him memorable and vulnerable.
Also, a very big plus for the Paddington franchise is that author Michael Bond was alive to visit the set, appear in a cameo role, and give his feedback on what the moviemakers were putting up on the big screen. In fact, Bond became quite friendly with the Paddington movie executives and director/writer Paul King. Bond was there at the early stages to comment on the transference, and the men and women involved in curating the bear as he became a CGI creation listened to Bond’s initial concerns and suggestions.
Having a writer of the original source material on hand makes all the difference in the world!
What’s fascinating is that Bond, who died on June 27, 2017, at age 91, passed away on the last day of filming for “Paddington 2.” The studio executives promptly dedicated the movie to his memory. Bond was there on set for both installments of the film, and even worried that he might be selling out his creation. I am quite confident that Random House/Penguin, which currently controls the copyright of Peter Rabbit and Potter’s other characters, had no such qualms.
In 2014, when the first Paddington film was released, Bond did a huge amount of pre-publicity for the movie. He was honest about his reservations and candid about his anxieties. In an interview with the London Telegraph, he told Julia Llewellyn Smith, “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.”
After attending the first movie’s star-studded premiere, Bond admitted that he was gratified by what the directing and producing team had concocted.
“It’s one of those films where you come away thinking about it. You keep saying: ‘Do you remember such and such a scene?’ There’s so much in it that’s quite magical. I’d give it full marks,” he opined. “There are lots of laughs, but there are solemn moments, too. At times I had a bit of moisture in my eyes, it was rather moving.”
For the uninitiated, Paddington is a bear who arrives at Paddington Station — hence his adopted name — and is taken in by a kind family of humans, the Browns. Hailing from Peru, he is lost and alone in the busy British railway hub. In the book, published in 1958, Paddington’s first appearance is with a tag around his neck that says “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” For Bond, this was a recollection of and a testament to the Jewish children who were transported to Reading Station during the World War II years when he was a young teenager who had dropped out of high school.
“I remember their labels round their necks and then I remember going to the cinema and seeing on the newsreel that Hitler had moved into some new country and seeing footage of elderly people pushing prams with all their belongings in them. Refugees are the saddest sight, I still think that,” Bond said in 2014.
With the 2017 sequel, the plight of real-world refugees is alluded to, and the production team strives hard to showcase an England where all races, all genders, all backgrounds, get along swimmingly. Even when Bond wrote the Paddington books, he was a proponent for acceptance of individual differences. Dr. Gruber, Paddington’s pal who owns an antique shop, was based on Bond’s first agent. He was a Jew who fled Nazi Germany when he learned his name was on a list to be rounded up due to his work as a lawyer and jurist. Much like Paddington, Bond’s friend arrived in England with just a suitcase and a few pounds (about $50) in his pocket.
Of course, since this is a movie with a caper/silly crime plot, there has to be some kind of troublemakers. In this outing, the bad guy is embodied by Hugh Grant in an award-nominated turn as a hammy, has-been, vain, overt-the-hill actor. His co-star Hugh Bonneville, who plays Mr. Brown, laughingly commented to the BBC that “it must have been a ‘stretch’ for Hugh to play such a full-of-himself part. Can you imagine Hugh Grant as a narcissist actor who is worried about fading looks and a fading career? It must have been so hard. Seriously, though, he steals every scene he is in.”
The look of the movie is akin to a candy confectionary, with a pastel palette and a sentimental and sugary-sweet cinematography eye. The set décor, dressed exactingly and painstakingly, has the appearance of children’s illustrations. Each scene looks like a child’s pop-up construction, which is ideal, because the plot of “Paddington 2” revolves around the theft of a precious pop-up book and Paddington being framed for the pilfering.
Much of the movie has that same literary evocation that Wes Anderson’s movies have. The talented director of “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” storyboards his movies as though they are sweeping graphic installations. Beyond the precise dialogue and his recurring cast of actors, Anderson’s movies are instantly recognizable due to their curated looks. His films truly appear like well-loved drawings from a highly regarded, sweetly remembered book from your past. It is an amazing accomplishment. Paddington 2 has that same stylized look: each moment is a concise set piece.
Since I am an American, Paddington doesn’t resonate with me as it might for a child who was brought up reading it, with the spires of St. Paul looming over her shoulders. To me, Paddington is a foreign bear, both from his Peruvian birth and his British upbringing. He is a stranger to me in terms of his origin and his citizenship. Our commonality comes from his amiability, his kindness, his proper etiquette, and his honest temperament. Paddington’s day-to-day antics weren’t reflective of my childhood experiences and expectations. (I would not be traveling around the globe with a jar of marmalade.) Rather, he was a symbol of acceptance, universality of caring, and curiosity of children. Paddington flourishes in his debut book and in all of its 26 sequential ones because he is both the recipient of and the grantor of kindness.
That is why I think the two Paddington movie properties are in a class by themselves. Yes, they do break down the two-dimensional walls of the books. The bear and all his cohorts become walking/talking characters, portrayed by actors who lend their particular voices to their ideas of who Paddington and the Browns are. (Interesting side note: The first Paddington was Colin Firth. He recorded a large amount of dialogue for the first film. Producers, though, felt his voice sounded too mature and too strained. Even though he wasn’t to be seen, they felt his vocal modulations and his stardom made Paddington seem too old. He was replaced by Ben Whishaw, 20 years his junior.)
Also, because movies are a kinetic medium, and attendees want to see things happen — particularly children, who want to see A LOT of things happen — there is intrigue and slapstick, tension and tenderness, plopped into the film series that doesn’t exist in the original pages.
I think these two movies are a grand testament to taking the written word and transforming it into a motion picture. In fact, the pathos and the heart that beats beneath the Paddington flicks give it a deep-rooted connection to the notion of a moving picture. These are, indeed, moving pictures that move us.