The late Michael Bond’s talking bear, the star of numerous books and an animated television series, has survived the process with dignity intact
The cast of Paddington 2 on how they brought the sequel to life
Adapting beloved children’s books into modern-day films is a fraught business. Just ask the team behind Peter Rabbit, the forthcoming adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s big-eared character. When the trailer dropped, with James Corden voicing the title role, the reaction was near-hysteria. “Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong,” wrote The Guardian. The sound was clearly adults’ jaws hitting the floor, their childhood memories once again ruined (see also Garfield, Postman Pat, The Magic Roundabout and Thunderbirds).
So hats should be doffed (presumably to reveal a marmalade sandwich underneath) to Paul King, director of 2014’s Paddington and the new sequel Paddington 2, and his team. The late Michael Bond’s talking bear, the star of numerous books and an animated television series, has survived the process with dignity intact.
“Our main thing was, ‘We don’t want it to be Hollywood-ised,’” says King, who felt as protective as anyone when it came to bringing this bear from Darkest Peru to the big screen.
It certainly worked. Critics lauded Paddington, which was nominated for two BAFTAs and grossed US$268 million (Dh984m) around the globe.
“It did become a proper family experience,” says actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Mr Brown, who along with his wife Mary (Sally Hawkins) and two children, adopts Paddington.
The sequel has also been praised and, when it was released in the UK, the distributor StudioCanal enjoyed its biggest-ever opening weekend – £8.2 million (Dh40.3m). It seems King and Co really did take the sentiment “Please look after this bear” to heart. Arguably, Paddington 2 is even better than its predecessor, largely due to the appearance of Four Weddings and a Funeral star Hugh Grant, who plays Phoenix Buchanan, a faded West End actor. The plot focuses on Paddington looking to buy an expensive pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, a book that also happens to contain clues to a hidden treasure – something the greedy Buchanan also wants to get his hands on to fund his plans for a vainglorious one-man show.
Asking Grant to play a has-been luvvie was “a little awkward”, admits King, who co-wrote the script with Simon Farnaby (like King, an alumni of surreal TV comedy show The Mighty Boosh). “We always wanted it to be him – we called the character ‘Hugh Grant’ for about six months,” says King. “A fruity version of Hugh Grant. Then we had to write this very awkward letter – ‘Dear Mr. Grant, we’ve written this character in Paddington 2, who is a washed-up, vain, self-important, probably not very good actor, and thought of you!’”
It is characters like Buchanan that make the film just as enjoyable for adults, something that came across in Bond’s books. “I think one of the reasons for that is that my father never set out to write a children’s book,” says Karen Jankel, Bond’s daughter and managing director of Paddington and Company. “When he wrote, it was for his own pleasure. So, in fact, they’re quite sophisticated, the novel-length stories, in the same way that the film is as well.”
While not specifically adapting an existing Paddington story for the sequel, King and Farnaby re-read all of the books to comb them for ideas. “The Paddington stories tend to be all short stories, so you can raid them for moments and characters,” says King. “But equally you have to find a framework that you can hang these things on, one that hopefully feels true to the spirit of the characters, and what Michael Bond might have written if he’d written a feature film.” One fruitful story was A Visit to the Theatre, where Paddington encounters thespian Sir Sealy Bloom, a precursor to Grant’s character. “He gets really annoyed with the actor for being nasty on stage to his daughter, so at the interval, he goes backstage and tells him off,” says Farnaby. “And the actor is very pompous – ‘I’m just being an actor, it’s not real.’ Paddington says, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, you should be nicer to people!’”
In Paddington’s world, good manners cost nothing – although in the sequel he has his work cut out after he is falsely imprisoned when the pop-up book is stolen. It leads to some brilliant scenes in a prison, where Paddington faces an angry contingent of inmates, led by the fearsome Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) – almost as scary as Nicole Kidman’s villainess from the first film, who threatened Paddington with the taxidermist. “The fear of threat for the under-fives is not as intense,” promises Bonneville.
With Paddington once again beautifully animated using CGI, interacting with the human cast, it’s a marvellous feat of filmmaking. It was the advances in technology that convinced Jankel to grant the rights to producer David Hayman (who brought the Harry Potter series to the big screen). “Until CGI reached the level that it did, I don’t think it would have been possible,” she says, pointing out that the 1970s TV series also worked because it was a three-dimensional puppet against a hand-drawn backdrop.
Yet if anything makes the Paddington films work, it’s the work of King and Farnaby. “They’re such big kids themselves really and Paul particularly is Paddington,” says Bonneville. “He does have this wonderful optimistic outlook on the world, but he does have a good hard stare as well [echoing Paddington’s own frown used on particularly terrible people].”
The actor recalls one scene King kept returning to. “He said he could feel it in his gut that it wasn’t right and quite as delicious as he wanted.” Certainly, King is ruthless when he needs to be. On the first film, the production parted company with Colin Firth, who originally voiced the character of Paddington but it was decided a “slightly more open and younger voice was called for”. Actor Ben Whishaw, who played Q in recent James Bond films, came in and made the role his own. “Now they’ve got the character so right,” says Jankel, “they can put him into any situation.” Does this mean Paddington will return for a third outing? “Let the people decide,” says Farnaby, with a grin.
Paddington 2 opens in cinemas today