Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, 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
People come out of PADDINGTON 2 come out feeling better about the world – and that’s a nice thing to be part of.
The story of Paddington Bear by author Michael Bond is one many of us grew up with. A wholesome, heartening tale of an orphaned, polite bear finding his place in the world and the good in people is a timeless one for all ages to enjoy. Blessedly, this Charlie Chaplin-esque character hasn’t lost one iota of his wit, wisdom, charm and adorableness in his transition to the silver screen in PADDINGTON 2. Director/ co-writer Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby return to the franchise, giving us an utterly blissful, endearing and delightful sequel within the spirit of Bond’s original creation.
After having braved the treacherous journey from the Darkest Peru, to lovely London, Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has cemented himself as an integral part of the Windsor Gardens community. He makes the neighborhood a brighter place. However, his quest to find the perfect 100th birthday gift for his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) – an antique pop-up book of London – gets him into quite the pickle. It lands him in jail! Could it be that his new neighbor, washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), has something to do with it? Possibly. It’s then up to the Brown family, including a mid-life crisis suffering Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville), to get to the bottom of this.
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, King, who dropped out of directing WONDER in order to return to the director’s chair on this follow-up chapter, mentioned the goals were,
…to find a way to exist in the universe. Part of that was making the bear as real as he could be. Another was making the world come to Paddington. We tried to create this heightened storybook quality, where a bear could walk down the street and it look like the most natural thing.
Knowing this time around what Paddington would look like, Bonneville was able to approach relating to the character in a new way.
It makes it a little easier in terms of what you’re projecting and using your imagination. On the first film, we did have a reference of what the bear was going to look like. We didn’t know if it was going to translate to on the screen. You didn’t know what the rendered result would be. On the second film, the animators have gone even further on the subtlety and the nuances of character that were there. For me, it’s entirely real.
Aside from the film’s primary use of CG, King harnessed other animation techniques. He called the tech involved,
…endlessly advancing. Framestore, who worked their astonishing magic, completely re-rendered the way they built the fur. It’s an entirely different process they went through. It works much better. There were things we did last time that had to be very bespoke, but this time we were able to delve more into – some things you would never think are tricky were tricky. Like the way his fur vibrates when he’s holding the razor is insanely complicated – and this whole scene relies on it. It was about the last day in October and the film was out in the UK the 10th of November, we finally found the right algorithm that flows through his hair at the right speed.
Another crucial ingredient in the success of making the audience believe this bear is real is all in the acting. King explained further,
What we all learned this time was about the character. The great thing this time is we had Ben Whishaw on board from the start. The last time we had to change half-way through. Sort of knowing a lot more about who Paddington was, was really the challenge. While we had lots of reference from Ben and Javier Marzan, who’s a clown who helps us figure out the slapstick sequences, really the greatest challenge is the acting. I always think the stillness is the hardest bit. There’s a shot in the prison where a single tear goes down his snout. He’s hardly moving at all, but for that to feel like he’s still alive – and not just a freeze frame is so weirdly difficult. It’s so emotional and he does so little. We think it’s one of the best special effects shots we’ve ever seen. I forget he’s not real!
The antique pop-up book sequence, where Paddington envisions taking Aunt Lucy around to all of London’s iconic landmarks, was one of the set pieces King is most proud of.
We wanted to keep this homemade, lo-fi feel to it to keep that storybook sensibility so you don’t feel you’re in TRANSFORMERS 47. Everything there is genuinely hand-painted. We were trying to keep as much organic special effect as possible so you don’t feel you’ve entered the world of a computer.
Grant insightfully teased that playing an actor of Phoenix’s caliber wasn’t too much of a stretch.
I have almost bottomless reservoirs of what Phoenix has – self-regard, paranoia, loathing. It was lovely to just wade around in them like that.
In the film, Phoenix suffers the great humiliation of having dressed as a dog for a dog food commercial. Grant himself has never suffered such an indignity, he jokingly added,
…yet. But I feel that after this film it can only be a matter of time.
Sadly the creator of Paddington passed away on the final day of shooting PADDINGTON 2. But he had blessed every step of the way. Bonneville said of Bond’s legacy,
He’s been not only a great father figure to Paddington, but also to the first project and the second as well.
King followed up,
One of the things that gave me such pleasure with the first film was Michael watching it. I had spent about five years on it – and he spent 55 years on it, by that time, writing Paddington stories. It’s so in his soul. I was so nervous when Michael was watching the film. I just couldn’t watch it with him. I had to walk around the block. That was the only audience I really cared about because he was like Paddington’s dad. Karen, his daughter, said he always spoke about him as if he were real. He was so overjoyed that the first film was true to the spirit of his creation. That meant a huge amount to me that he was happy. It’s very sad that he never got a chance to see this. We showed him a few sequences, which he liked. I hope wherever he is, he likes our creation.
Paddington’s personal motto, “If we are kind and polite the world will be right,” is one of empathy and compassion – things this world desperately needs right now.
Paddington has this amazing set of values he’s inherited from Aunt Lucy – to always be so kind, look for the good in people and to love his neighbor. What we were interested in doing in the film is testing it. We wanted to see how those values withstand the cynical real world. Simon and I were enormously influenced by Frank Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. Aunt Lucy turns out to be completely justified. That message and those values are absolutely the core of the film.
He shows us that small acts of kindness go a long way. That courtesy and respect go for a huge amount. We’ve all been “a Paddington” before. We’ve all needed the kindness of strangers in a new role, a new job, or moving to a new city, or new school. If in any way we can reach the simple qualities of courtesy and kindness, it’s a pretty good place to be. People come out of PADDINGTON 2 come out feeling better about the world – and that’s a nice thing to be part of.
And make sure to stay through the credits for a spectacular tag that involves one cast member in an over-the-top, song-and-dance number! Farnaby spilled,
It wasn’t always going to be a song. It was going to be a play. It was going to be the end of Hamlet – and all the prisoners were going to be performing and be dreadful. It became more of a musical when it became more of a musical actor. We had to do the song.
PADDINGTON 2 opens January 12 (but has sneaks starting on the evening of January 11).
Header photo: Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in PADDINGTON 2. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.