The Return of Paddington
With today’s U.S. release of Paddington 2, the sequel to 2014’s hit British film Paddington—based on the popular children’s books written by the late Michael Bond—director/co-writer Paul King, co-writer Simon Farnaby and actors Hugh Bonneville and Hugh Grant gathered together recently to meet the press and discuss this latest entry in family-oriented theatrical entertainment.
Released in the U.K. back in November, Paddington 2 topped the box office three times during its first five weeks in theaters and has been nominated for three British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA)—Best British Film, Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Grant) and Best Adapted Screenplay—which take place next month.
In the often cynical world we all find ourselves in, the tale of this life-loving bear is a refreshing escape and it’s little wonder that the film’s director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby bring up one of cinema’s great feel-good directors in discussing their view of Paddington. “Simon and I were enormously influenced by Frank Capra’s classics—It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—where you take a person with what may seem to be naïve, old-fashioned values in the big bustling workplace and it seems to work just as well today. What happens to Paddington when he goes out in the community? Can he hold on to those values? Does he begin to lose faith in them? And he does, but then he finds them again. I think that message and those values are absolutely at the core of the film."
Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Hugh Bonneville, who returns in his role as the head of Paddington’s adopted family, agrees. “We’ve all been a Paddington at times,” the one-time patriarch of Downton Abbey says. “We’ve all been strangers in a strange place and needed the kindness of strangers to get us through. Whether taking on a new job or moving to a new city or going to a new school, I think we’ve all been Paddington and if we can in any way reach the simple qualities of courtesy and kindness then that’s a pretty good place to be. I think people who come out of Paddington 2 feel a little bit better about the world and that’s a nice thing to be part of.”
This time out the lovable bear’s values are tested after he is wrongfully imprisoned for a crime committed by the film’s villain, an egotistical actor played by Grant, who jokingly describes his over-the-top character Phoenix Buchanan thusly: “I have almost bottomless reservoirs of what Phoenix has: self-regard, paranoia, loathing, all these things, so it was lovely to just wade around in them like that." In his dead-pan manner, Grant goes on to say, "If I ever tried to be a little subtle or tried to find a good psychological motivation for something I said or did, Paul soon pooh-pooh’d that. He wasn’t interested in those things; just cheap laughs, really.”
As for Farnaby, writing around the film’s central scenario was a little odd. “It can be quite cruel to be a screenwriter sometimes,” he says with a laugh, “like when the idea is that you’re going to send [Paddington] to prison. Let’s send this nice sweet bear with wonderful values and kindness and let’s do the worst thing possible that you can do to him, which is send him to prison [laughs]. But once we had those beats, we were up and running and fairly confident that we had a good sequel.”
Of course none of this would matter without bringing the title character to life in a realistic way. Enter the London-based visual effects company Framestore who pushed the Paddington envelope even further this time around, according to the film’s director. “The technology is just endlessly advancing and our partners at Framestore completely rebuilt the way they render Paddington’s fur,” explains King. “It’s an entirely different process they went through and it works much better. Like the way his fur vibrates when he’s holding the razor is insanely complicated.”
While the end result is truly amazing, the process did cut things rather close, according to King: “You start the shot in January and by June it looks dreadful, and by September it looks like he’s in an earthquake, and it was literally the last day of October—with the film premiering in the U.K. on November 10—that we finally found the right algorithm. [Framestore] has done an incredible job and I’m really proud of their work.”
Paddington’s co-stars were no less impressed with their furry colleague. “I was so blown away by the quality of the CGI animation that it left me stunned because I hadn’t realized that it was going to be that technically brilliant and emotionally real,” Bonneville says about his initial reaction to the first film. “And on the second film the animators have gone even further in terms of the subtlety and the nuances of the character and, for me, he was entirely real and I forgot that he really wasn’t there most of the time.”
Grant notes with a laugh that at the London premiere of the film, “my 89-year-old father turned to me and said, ‘Is that a real bear?’”
The only sad note associated with the production was the passing of Paddington’s true creator, author Michael Bond, who published the first of his Paddington children’s books in 1958 and his last one in 2017. During that time, he wrote more than two dozen books in the series with sales of more than 35 million books around the world.
“He passed away on the last day of filming, which was very poignant,” notes Bonneville. “He had been a great father figure, not only to Paddington obviously, but to the first project and the second one as well.”
“One of the things that gave me the most pleasure was Michael watching the first film,” recalls director King, “because I had spent about five years on it and by that time he had spent 55 years writing Paddington stories. I was supposed to watch it with him in a screening room but I was so nervous that I had to leave and I walked around the block like a mad animal in a zoo for 95 minutes. I finally got a call from Rosie [Alison], one of our producers who was brave enough to sit with him, and she said, ‘He loved it.’ And I doubled over in the street [with relief] and I realized that Michael was the only audience I really, really cared about because he was Paddington’s dad.
“[Michael] was so overjoyed with the success [of the first film] and that it had found an audience and that the film was true to the spirit of his creation. It meant a huge amount to me that he was so happy and it’s sad that he never got to see this [new film]. We showed him a few sequences which he really liked, but he sadly passed away before he could see the finished thing. I hope wherever he is he’s smiling down on our creation.”
Speaking of smiles, audience members will want to sit through the credits of Paddington 2 as there’s a hilarious bonus of Hugh Grant’s character performing for the inmates of the prison he eventually finds himself in. Ironically, this song-and-dance number was shot on Grant’s very first day on set. “We wanted it to be during the credits,” explains King. “That’s when we knew we had to cast Hugh because we wanted to have one of the world’s greatest singers [laughs]. It was Hugh’s first day on the set and we did about 18 hours straight with Hugh all harnessed up, wearing ridiculous uber-tight, pink sequined trousers [laughs].”
Grant, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, says of his climactic performance: “I’m extremely proud of my song-and-dance. If I had my way it would be the law that theater owners in this country, and around the world, are not allowed to bring the lights up before we have the song-and-dance number. In fact, if someone tries to leave their seat, including children, they get electrocuted.”
Paddington 2 is in theaters now. Buy tickets.