LONDON – He is an illegal immigrant, small, brown and different-looking, lonely and unwelcome in a metropolis in which people try hard not to notice other people’s problems. Carrying a battered suitcase that contains very little, he encounters hostility, rudeness and indifference, and must battle prejudice and enmity.
Yes, it’s Paddington, the young bear who arrived in London from Darkest Peru in Michael Bond’s “A Bear Called Paddington” in 1958, and who is today a beloved staple of children’s literature in Britain and its former colonies. In the new film “Paddington,” directed by Paul King and due on Friday in the United States, these themes of immigration, tolerance and welcome (or the lack thereof) are given particular emphasis, perhaps not coincidental in a political climate here that has seen the rapid rise of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, which blames immigration for most of Britain’s woes.
But “Paddington” is also a children’s film, and the filmmakers have stayed faithful to the essence of Bond’s marmalade-loving, hat-wearing, scrupulously polite character, who despite his foreign origins embodies a quintessential Englishness – or perhaps a platonic idea of what it means to be English. The Paddington adventures – Bond has written 15 to date, the most recent (“Love From Paddington”) appeared this year – begin when the Brown family finds the bear at Paddington station with a label around his neck: “Please look after this bear.”
King has done just that, judging by the reviews when the film opened here in November.
“The heart of this sweet-natured ursine klutz beats strong and true in a film which takes a tale of a bear in search of a home and expands it into a sticky furry love letter to London,” Wendy Ide wrote in the British newspaper the Times.
In an interview in the study, adorned with Paddington drawings and book proofs, of his West London home, Bond, 88, said that the label detail came from memories of seeing evacuated children at rail stations during World War II.
“They all had labels around their necks and were holding on to their treasured possessions,” he said. “It was very sad, and Paddington is also a refugee in that way.”
Nicole Kidman, who plays the evil taxidermist Millicent (guess what she wants to do with Paddington?), said in a phone interview that she was particularly struck by the script’s allusion to the war and its parallels.
“In a quiet way, it reminds you of history and brings you to now,” she said. “There is definitely a theme of welcoming strangers in the movie and reminding us we’re all different. And to be kind. Those are important things to teach to children.”
The film makes use of the label history in an opening sequence that amusingly explains how Paddington (renamed by the Browns when his Peruvian moniker proves to be a throaty growl) learned English – as well as how to make marmalade and the values of British stoicism and politesse. He brings unwitting chaos to almost every situation, but the sweetness and optimism of his character always prevails.
“He possesses 1950s morals and values, but they don’t seem inappropriate today,” said David Heyman, the movie’s producer (his credits include the Harry Potter movies and “Gravity”). “If someone is rude or out of line, he’ll give them the hard stare.”
The “hard stare” is familiar to generations who grew up with Bond’s stories and the animated “Paddington” films that ran on BBC TV in the 1970s and 1980s: “It was a very powerful stare. One which his Aunt Lucy had taught him and which he kept for special occasions.”
Until now, however, there hasn’t been a feature-length film.
“I think there were various projects that didn’t work out,” King said in a telephone interview. “But I think even a decade ago, the technology wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done here.”
As it happens, the film, a mix of live action and animation, took almost a decade to produce. Heyman, who had, like every other self-respecting Brit, read the books as a child, rediscovered them through an associate and began, he said, to work on the project eight or nine years ago.
“I was struck that I still found them amusing and that there was humor for adults and children alike,” he said.
King, 36, who had directed a hit comedy television series here, “The Mighty Boosh,” and was working on his first feature film, “Bunny and the Bull,” when he met Heyman, was not an obvious choice for a larger enterprise of this kind. (Heyman declined to specify the budget for “Paddington,” although articles have given a figure of around $55 million.)
“When I jokingly suggested to my agent that he ask David for a meeting, he said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ ” King recounted. “But we did meet, and it became clear we shared the same idea of what the film could be. We had lots of pretentious conversations about what we could do; we talked about Tarkovsky and Genet and Chaplin. The great thing with David is because he has had all the success with “Harry Potter,” he doesn’t have the commercial pressures that most producers have, so he was willing to take a chance with me.”
The film required a long gestation, he added, because of the animation (created by the London-based Framestore) needed to bring its principal character to life alongside the actors, who include Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville, of “Downton Abbey” fame, as the Browns.
“We had to work out every scene with Paddington in it in great detail in terms of physical action and timing,” King explained. “Each had to be filmed with the actors often just playing to a bit of tape, although we had a brilliant physical comedian” – Javier Marzan – “who would sometimes help us work out the sequences.” Then, he said, the animators would give him a rough outline of a face and gradually flesh out the details as he coordinated the sound, the movement and the visual effect.
Then, when Colin Firth’s voice proved to be wrong for Paddington, and Ben Whishaw was chosen to replace him, every Paddington scene had to be redone.
“Any little facial expressions have to match with the voice,” King explained, adding that there were often 400 to 500 versions of every shot that involved Paddington.
“It’s a funny process, because it’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” Whishaw said in a telephone interview. “Do the words inform the bear’s expression, or does the expression influence the intonation? It was very magical to see it come together.”