Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
It’s lovely to have a film where you can celebrate something that can be so terrific about a place, rather than doing it down to negativity.
There’s no greater joy in life than discovering the film that you hold dear to your heart has a sequel – and that it’s just as good, if not better than, the original. Such is the case with PADDINGTON 2. Co-writer/ director Paul King’s sequel to the widely acclaimed PADDINGTON, a family-friendly comedic caper about a super polite, super sweet brown bear in a red hat from Darkest Peru, elicits an unbridled happiness and undeniable charm from all ages.
In the film based on Michael Bond’s beloved book series, newly adopted Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is on the hunt for the perfect birthday gift to send his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton). His tireless search leads him to a rather expensive pop-up book of London for sale in Mr. Guber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop. However, the book is stolen before he can purchase it and, to make matters worse, he’s mistakenly fingered for the crime. It’s then up to the Brown family to unmask the thief and exonerate our furry hero.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, I spoke with both King and co-writer/ co-star Simon Farnaby about everything from the film’s subtle cinematic references, to how they pieced the story together, to which scene the author didn’t get to see before he passed away.
What were some of the things you learned from the first Paddington that you applied here?
Paul King: A huge amount really. The tone is really tricky thing. One of the most important things you can do as a director is sort of be a custody of tone. You’re working with all these amazing talented technicians and actors and you’re the one who has to guide the mood of it somehow. I remember very early on, one of the fist conversations I had with David [Heyman, producer], we were talking about references. I was banging on about Chaplin, as I do. Something like THE KID was such a touchstone for me as a kid. It’s such an amazing comedy, amazing visual comedy, real heart, real pathos. I remember saying if we could do something like that in the same visual world of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of AMELIE, and do for London what AMELIE did for Paris. That’s sort of what we had to hold onto.
But you learn a huge amount more and you learn a lot of other devices. We learned you can cut away. You learn the family and who Paddington was. So by time we came onto doing two, we knew what they all sounded like, we knew the sort of things they could say to each other without breaking the comedy of it.
Were there challenges in the narrative that presented themselves to you?
Simon Farnaby: On a basic level, the first film is about him finding a home and all the things that go with that we knew we didn’t want to jeopardize.
PK: We didn’t want to redo that first film. We always find it kind of annoying when a sequel goes, ‘Oh the thing you though was sorted in the first film wasn’t actually sorted at all!’ Or you meet a character and you say, ‘Oh, by the way I have this issue,’ and you go, ‘Did you? You didn’t mention it for the first hour and a half we spent with you.’
SF: We had this readymade thing. Paul had this thing about what his neighbors were like. At the end of the first film, you get to see the street, but you don’t see any neighbors. So we went, ‘What happens to a man in the community? Who else could we see?’
PK: We thought he’d be so popular. We were thinking about where he’d be a year on. Paddington’s the perfect neighbor. He’s like my wife. She knows all of them. She’s always talking to people. She’s the person who when the mad lunatic in the street would go, ‘Hello,’ and I’d back away, she’d go, ‘Hello.’ We thought he’d absolutely be that perfect. He’d know the million things about the neighbors – and that London would be this dream city for him, because he’s such a great friend-maker. If we could build that up and take it away from him when he goes to prison, we felt we could be really emotional and give it a motor to the story. And a new environment to test his values.
One of the things that strikes me most about Paddington is his legacy – and what that means to London and children worldwide. Now, you two are picking up and carrying that torch. Have you had any feedback on how this has touched audiences?
PK: We’ve had an extraordinary response in the UK. It’s unbelievable how much this has been taken into people’s hearts, which sounds like boasting, which we’re not trying to do. People are very proud their city. London is not always friendly and welcoming, I have to say, but at its best it can be. It’s lovely to have a film where you can celebrate something that can be so terrific about a place, rather than doing it down to negativity. We wanted to do something really positive and celebratory of the best of London.
Had you run these ideas by Michael Bond before?
PK: Oh yeah. He read several drafts of the scripts. We talked, not a lot, but every time we did a draft, which was every couple of months or so, we’d send it to him, go and talk to him and listen to his thoughts on it. We’d correspond. He absolutely knew the story. The window cleaning sequence was the only scene once we finally finished. But he’d come down to the shoot. I think it was really lovely for him that although the books were all very loved, I think this has helped them find a new audience all over again. I think he’s thrilled that his creation is living on.
Did you get to know his tells when maybe you’d push things too far?
PK: He was amazingly easy going about the story. He was very protective of the beginning sequence of the first movie, when Paddington arrives at the station. For a while, we didn’t have the tea room scene. We just felt the story needed to get going and we needed to get home and to the bathroom, which was our big set piece. He was really insistent on that – ‘You gotta have that scene. It’s important.’ I sort of reluctantly put it back in the script and he was absolutely right! As long as we were true to the spirit and the emotions of the books, in terms of the stories beyond that, there are hundreds of Paddington stories. He’s quite open about what Paddington could do. He just wanted Paddington to be Paddington.
Do you have other ideas that are percolating for a third PADDINGTON? Please tell me there will be a third! I love this franchise so, so much.
PK: We have ideas.
SF: There’s so much in the books. It’s funny how very small things in the books can lead to bigger stories. We had the barber’s sequence from the book. There’s one story where he goes to an auction and Paddington accidentally buys something the villain wants and it’s got something valuable inside it – all these things lead into when you’re looking for a big story, it all feeds in.
PK: There’s stuff like the judge where you can take one sketch and say, ‘If that’s that character and that’s why he sends Paddington down, because he’s still cross about the haircut.’ It’s lovely to start threading it all together.
Has this changed at all your relationship to marmalade sandwiches?
SF: I’m more open to a marmalade sandwich now. I’ve got a lot more marmalade in my cupboard now.
PK: It’s strange because people start to give you marmalade. I quite like marmalade, but I’m not a twelve-jar-a-month.
*** Spoilers ahead***
There’s also a bunch of other hidden cinematic references in this too. You’ve got a MODERN TIMES nod in there.
You’ve got THE UNTOUCHABLES.
PK: Yes! Absolutely! What children’s film doesn’t reference THE UNTOUCHABLES?!
…the Busby Berkeley number during the end credits – and others. What was it like to work with references that kids may not know, but can grow with?
SF: The MODERN TIMES one was not so much an accident as, you’d go, ‘Let’s do a tribute to MODERN TIMES.’
PK: But we liked the idea of the clock mechanism. There’s so much Chaplin in there. We thought it’d be really nice. We try not to do too many reference-y references where you sort of need to be a movie buff to get it. But it was such a direct reference, or homage – ‘French for theft,’ as somebody once said – that we wanted to acknowledge we weren’t trying to pass off Chaplin jokes as our own. The mustache felt like a really nice way of doing it.
SF: Things like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE – we loved the scene at the end where all the community come round. But we never really went, ‘I want that to look exactly like this.’ It just so happens, [Paddington’s] on top of the stairs and he walks down and all the community is there. And then you go, ‘Oh. This is sort of…’
PK: It’s the same beat, isn’t it? We loved the idea of Paddington getting more than he hoped. It just felt so beautiful. And we were really keen that the story kept going until the last seconds. Sometimes they stop, and you have five minutes left, and you’re going, ‘I’m going to put my stuff back in the bag. Get my coat on.’ We really wanted to make a film that went right up to the wire. It was written the second day we were talking. Simon said, ‘We could be trying to get Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday present.’ And then I went, ‘Aaaand she comes over at the end because that’s what you want to see.’
SF: And the neighbors get together. It felt like a really nice bookend. This bear, who didn’t really know the good he was doing in the community. He just does it because he’s a nice bear and it’s natural for him to help people. At the end, his journey is he realizes that’s much more important.
I’m incapable of talking about this ending with people who’ve seen it without crying.
PK: Oh I know! Oh good! It’s so touching somehow.
I’m so glad you have the musical number at the end – so I could calm down.
PK: You need some time.
PADDINGTON 2 opens on January 12.
Header photo: Padddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in PADDINGTON 2. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.