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Thursday 4 December 2014

Paddington Goes Before a Committee

English: Paddington at Paddington
English: Paddington at Paddington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

*One day Paddington received a letter telling him he was to be put in front of a committee. “What’s a committee?” he asked the Brown family. “It’s when a group of people get together to decide on things”, said Mrs Brown. “What are they going to decide about me?” asked Paddington. “I think”, said Judy, “That it is about your new film”. Paddington became very excited. “A film? About me?” he said in amazement. “Yes”, said Jonathan, “They have been planning to make it since 2007”. Paddington looked concerned. It seemed like a very long time to plan something. “What do you think has taken them so long?” He suddenly asked. “That”, said Mr Brown, “Is a very good question. After all, you have been loved by the British since 1958. Mr Bond has consistently written stories that have remained faithful to the original idea and seem timeless. A television series was created in the 1970s that fitted so well with the original books that it now seems strange not to hear a Paddington’s stories without hearing Michael Horden’s comforting tones, narrating your adventures”. 

“Yes dear”, said Mrs Brown. “It probably helped that the entire TV series was part-produced by Mr Bond. The BBC are known to be a difficult committee, but when it came to producing quality children’s television in the 1970s and ‘80s, few could fault them on the creativity they allowed”. The Browns agreed that the TV series had not faltered once its entire run and a lot of that was mainly down to consistently keeping to a simple method and putting the essence of the stories first. Yes, they said, it was formulaic as stories of this nature need to be. 

Everyone in the Brown household seemed happy, but they were not without a good deal of apprehension about the intended new feature film. Mrs Bird, who was always very protective of Paddington, had her reservations. “I bet they are going to use that horrible CGI”, she said. The Browns were aware that although amazing advances had been in the use of Computer Generated Imagery and the likes of both Pixar and DreamWorks had produced some bonafide classics, the medium did have some decided drawbacks. Firstly, unlike the innocent and simplistic visual concept of the Paddington TV series, CGI dated at a very fast rate indeed. Only a handful of films, such as Peter Jackson’s imagining of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy had really got the balance right, and that was mainly down its heavy use of models, set and costume design as well as the choice of real life breath-taking landscapes “So long as they remain faithful to the original source”, said Mrs Bird, “I guess it will be alright. However, it is not good enough to humour audiences by paying homage to a few established trademarks. Paddington is magical because of its overall feel of familiarity, which you read in the first story onwards and was beautifully imagined in the Filmfair TV series for the BBC”. 

The day arrived that Paddington found himself sat in front of the committee. He had heard many exciting things such as it would feature, including a well-trained squirrel monkey and a very amusing scene in the Brown’s bathroom, where Paddington would create tidal wave that would run through the family’s house. “I hope nobody will get hurt, Mr King”, said Paddington, who was always concerned for the wellbeing others. Paul King was a BAFTA winning director who not only directed the film, but also had co-written it with Hamish McColl. 
The whole set-up, including a cast that included a host well-known British stars making up the main cast - such as Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Ben Whishaw performing the voice of Paddington – sounded very much like a home-grown piece of art. Nicole Kidman was the standout foreign talent and she was to play the role of a villain, which reminded Paddington of the way Hollywood often liked to cast British actors as the baddies. Paddington has met plenty of bad types in his time. However, they usually came in the form of confidence tricksters. Ms Kidman was to play the role of a psychotic and special operations trained taxidermist intent on killing Paddington and having him preserved in a museum.  Paddington had certainly endangered himself many times, but had come to represent the amusing oxymoron of “mild peril”. This seemed to overstep the description a bit. 

“But this is a major feature film”, explained one of the committee members, “The audience will expect everything on a much larger scale”. Paddington was further alarmed to discover that one of his family members is slain early on in the film. The committee explained how everything had to conform to the expectations of the general public. Paddington wondered what more a general public could expect from a story that had kept a consistent theme for well over half a century. “There is a 19 plot points for the script” explained one member of the committee. 
Things certainly were on a larger scale to the problems than the episodes that usually occurred after Paddington had mislaid one of his beloved marmalade sandwiches. “Don’t worry, we checked that one off the list” said another member of the committee. “Our fan sensitivity ensured that your fondness for marmalade is reiterated throughout the picture and one even clogs up a machine. You do all your funny things and we reference lots of the books without actually adapting them. That incident with Mr Brown in the café at Paddington station is recreated and then there’s the bit where you get lost on the elevators. There’s even this gag with a dog, where you read a sign saying ‘All dogs must be carried’ near the elevator, so you go and find one to carry, to show how literal you are with different things”. Paddington could see that they appeared to be trying very hard, but something about this whole committee thing bothered him.

“What other funny things do I do?” he asked suspiciously. “Well, the usual stuff that gets laughs. You get confused, like you do in the books and there’s plenty of slapstick. There’s a little bit of toilet humour in there because that is what people expect”. Paddington recalled the popular trailer for the film and said, “Yes, I thought the toilet bit was a bit funny, but I thought the bit with the sink and the bath was even funnier”. The committee turned to look at each other bewilderment and then one member quickly said, “No, I mean there is a scene where you have eaten your entire marmalade supply and start breaking wind” Paddington gave the committee one of his hard stares.  “We’ve got you doing that too!” shouted one of the members with enthusiasm. Paddington did not like the way this was going. “We had to put the hard stare in and you tell Mr Brown what it is you are doing and why you are doing it”. 

Paddington look puzzled. Why would he need to explain? As if they were reading his mind, one of the committee members chimed in, “We have to do that because there is no narrator. The film is full of exposition. People don’t like mystery these days. Their suspension of disbelief is so weak that we constantly have to prop it up with ever-more ridiculous supports to make anything that is clearly fantasy seem plausible. Also the fans will be delighted to know that we have fleshed out your backstory.  There is a reason for why you wear the duffel coat and the red hat, and even how you got the idea to keep a marmalade sandwich in your hat for emergencies. We even explain why you are crazy for marmalade! A movie is the place to explain such things. We also explain how you and your family learned how to talk and why you love London so much”.  
“How do I look in the film?” Paddington asked. “Like you!” they all said enthusiastically, but then added “With a few changes”. Paddington didn’t like the sound of that. “Changes?” he said. “Yes, to make you look more bear-like. You will also do more bear-like things like climbing up poles really fast”.  

Paddington left the committee not sure whether he should be delighted that his story was being brought to a new audience or whether it really was his story at all. This was a sentiment shared by the Browns when he got home. “What’s a 19 point plot?” asked Mrs Brown. “A Committee member told me it was to reduce the risk”. Mrs Bird was not amused. “That doesn't sound like one of Mr Bond's stories" she said. "He didn't write it", said Paddington. Judy explained she had read about it before. "It includes things like the 'false victory'" Mrs Bird shook her head. "What is wrong with a beginning, a middle and an end? We know every story will involve Paddington getting himself into trouble and everything resolving itself. Do we need to predict every single step of the way?" Mr Brown said, "Well, we'll just have to wait and see". 


The film does work, but it seems like a gentle homage to Michael Bond's creation rather than a worthy attempt to expand on the Paddington story. Despite efforts to keep the whole thing as British as possible, it all seems like a massive pastiche of Britain to an American audience. It couldn't be more formulaic to the typical family movie model of today if it had been in Hollywood. The Browns function in the book were to provide an affectionate and loyal yet two-dimensional backdrop to Paddington. This was literally depicted in the TV series that Michael Bond co-produced. Fleshing them out, we see each cast member taking on expected stereotypes. Jonathan is an action-packed and creative little boy, working against his father's fear of risks. Judy is a sullen stroppy pre-pubescent also with a genius level talent, this time with languages. Mrs Brown was made into an over-affectionate and emotional middle class hippy artist. This is very different to the very sensible character we see in the books. Mr Brown is Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey. Hugh Bonneville has simply substituted his upper class concern over the deterioration of tradition for middle class paranoia over taking risks. He is the same stuffy yet deeply affectionate father figure who is scared of change until he is convinced by the family he loves. Mrs Bird, originally the nanny/cook character in the books, is a "distant relation" Scottish accented Julie Walters. Oddly enough, despite all the obvious changes on the surface to her character, she acts the closes to the heart of the source material. 
Outside the family we have the contrasting Mr Gruber, the kindly antiques dealer, and Mr Curry, the objectionable and penny-pinching next door neighbour. Like Bonneville, Jim Broadbent seems to adopt a caricature that has become associated with most of his good guy roles. Peter Capaldi is quite the disappointment as Mr Curry. The penny pinching gag is one of the few areas that did need a bit of exposition, but didn't get any and therefore fell a bit flat. He plays second fiddle to Kidman as the film's major antagonist. Kidman's character, a completely original construct for the film, is also pretty interchangeable to several of her other ice queen roles, which she seems to regularly play these days. Think Mrs. Coulter in "The Golden Compass" or even Evelyn Stoker in "Stoker" and you will be hard-pressed to make a distinction from Kidman's Millicent character in this film. Even the character's title seems lazy and influenced by a certain other franchise spin-off that is currently en vogue. The era of the geek seems to be passing through its golden age now. Whereas the 2000s opened to adaptations and re-makes that diligently paid homage to their source material, we have arrived at a time when fan appeasement is just another part of the committee process. "Paddington" may resemble the British institution it is supposed to represent, but this is a superficial veneer. The words of kindness and support that Mrs Bird and the Brown family spoke in Paddington's defence whenever he got into trouble was far more subtle and sincere in delivering a moral message than the clumsy speeches about what constitutes a family in King and McCall's script.
Okay, perhaps I am being a little harsh. To the film's credit, it is enjoyable as far as regular family movies go, but will never be remembered as a classic. However, it could have been far worse. I know my parents' trainers enjoyed working on the picture and it certainly inspired me to buy the complete original "Paddington" box set for my daughter's birthday. She received a crash course in the bear from Darkest Peru. Listening to my daughter's friend the other day when I picked them both up from school, I heard just about everything mentioned in the film that was not part of the original Paddington concept. The earthquake, the death in the family and his elaborate bear-like acrobatics were recalled. Marmalade sandwiches were forgotten. It brought a smile to my face to see the enduring image of the little bear in his duffel coat and red hat preserved in the form of miniature toy fastened to her school bag. Paddington has reached another generation. 

*If you didn't know already, the above is a tongue-in-cheek review of the film, "Paddington", and not a submission of a new Paddington Bear story. In no way should it be considered an attempt to sell a copyrighted product. Paddington Bear is the copyright and creation of Michael Bond. I cannot believe I need to say this stuff, but there is always "one" out there.


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