Cute but determined, lovable but accident-prone, Paddington Bear has been a feature of most childhoods in this part of the world for over 50 years.
Since Michael Bond dreamt him up back in 1958, Paddington has starred in dozens of books, three TV series and the odd Marmite ad. The best TV show was the original one, a delightful BBC animation voiced by Michael Hordern: that's the version stuck in most people's minds, which is probably why the first glimpses of this new feature film were met with a flurry of angry tweets.
The Paddington in Paul King and David Heyman's film looks sharper-faced, less rotund and cuddly, than the 1970s version, and if there's one thing that hacks people off it's folk messing with their childhoods. But I think the makers of Paddington are to be commended for attempting to update the bear's story, and mixing his traditional charm with a strong dose of modern wit.
In an amusing prologue we're shown a black and white newsreel of a pith-helmeted English explorer who's hacking his way through the Peruvian rain forests when he stumbles on a previously unknown species of bear. He bonds with a couple of them, is amazed to discover that they can speak, and proceeds to teach them the finer points of British culture - basically, manners and marmalade - before leaving. Many years later, the two bears are raising their orphaned nephew and schooling him in the joys of home-made marmalade and received pronunciation when a terrible earthquake destroys their forest.
The young bear's aunt sneaks him onto a cargo ship bound for England, and he winds up in Paddington Station, all alone and searching for a home. The bear's rather outdated idea of England as a land of warm hearts and unerring decency is instantly challenged by gruff London commuters who raise their eyebrows and shove him out of the way. But just when he's giving up hope, a kindly passer-by called Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) takes pity on him and persuades her fussy husband (Hugh Bonneville) to take the animal home.
As his bear name is totally unpronounceable, they christen him Paddington. And as soon as he arrives at their spacious west London home, Paddington inadvertently destroys the bathroom and careers down the stairs in the bathtub.
Mr Brown reckons he belongs in an orphanage, but his wife and children become quietly determined to make Paddington one of the family. Even films as cuddly as this one need villains, and Peter Capaldi plays a busybody neighbour called Mr Curry who joins forces with Millicent, a glamorous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, having a whale of a time) to rid London of that pesky bear.
They're not just villains, they're racists. When Mr Curry says "I suppose we're lucky it's just one bear," Millicent icily replies, "but it's always just one to begin with," wittily referencing the 'there goes the neighbourhood' racism that was all the rage in Britain back in the 1960s and 70s. But that's not the London depicted in Paddington: this city is Guardian-reading, and sternly inclusive. "In London nobody's alike," Paddington muses in his diary, "which means that everyone fits in". That's the theory anyway.
Though its animation is initially disconcerting, Paddington quickly blossoms into a lovely, fluffy, warm-hearted and utterly irresistible little film. Ben Whishaw does a fine job of voicing the bear, and there are winning turns from Jim Broadbent, Matt Lucas and Julie Walters, who plays the Brown's salty and irreverent housekeeper.
And Paul King's film has a winning and very British sense of humour. At one point Mrs. Brown goes to the police station to report Paddington as missing. "He's three-foot-six," she explains, "he's wearing a red hat and, oh, he's a bear." The policeman sighs and says: "It's not much to go on."
When Jennifer Lawrence appeared in the first Hunger Games film back in 2012, she was a rising young actress who'd made her name in indie films like Winter's Bone but wasn't all that well known. Now she's an Oscar-winner, and one of the most famous women on the planet. She certainly seems to have a knack for picking decent projects, because Hunger Games is a lot less dumb than most of these fantasy franchises.