Actors Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville joined by director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby at ‘Paddington 2’ junket
Michael Wahle Jan. 11, 2018
The London Hotel in West Hollywood received healthy doses of both London and Hollywood last week, as it played host to co-writer/director Paul King, co-writer Simon Farnaby and actor Hugh Bonneville in addition to screen legend/franchise newcomer Hugh Grant as part of the press junket for “Paddington 2,” the welcome sequel to the 2014 hit based on the beloved Paddington Bear children’s book series by British author Michael Bond.
This iteration of Bond’s classic once again sees a computer-animated Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in live-action London, this time seeking the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. Paddington knows he’s found a winner when he uncovers a unique pop-up book in an antique shop, the cost of which will require him to take on a myriad of odd jobs throughout the community. But Paddington finds himself in hot water when the book is stolen and he is framed for the crime, which lands him in prison with some menacing characters.
Paddington’s foster family the Browns, which includes parents Mary (Sally Hawkins) and Henry (Bonneville) as well as teenage children Judy and Jonathan, know that Paddington is innocent, and grow to suspect that their neighbor/has-been stage actor Phoenix Buchanan (Grant, fully embracing his over-the-top thespian character) is the actual culprit.
While the Browns strive tirelessly to prove Paddington’s innocence, the optimistic, marmalade-loving Paddington makes even prison a better place, and strikes up unlikely friendships with his motley cellmates, most notably burly prison chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson).
“Paddington 2” sees King once again in the director’s chair, continuing to facilitate a story world that he was so instrumental in creating in the first “Paddington” film. It’s a creation in which King takes such pride that he turned down the offer to direct the now critically heralded “Wonder” in favor of continuing to further explore it.
“It was such a difficult choice,” recalled King. “One is such a beautiful book and an incredibly heartwarming story. I loved the idea of the film, and I would have loved to make it happen. But “Paddington 2” was a world I had sort of created in the first film. In the end, I had to make the decision based on the question of which one would break my heart more to leave behind. I came to feel that, especially with all the time I had spent with the amazing cast and crew we had assembled, that we had become a strange, dysfunctional but loving family, and we all get along brilliantly. Paddington is such a special world that I felt I had a part in creating, and I didn’t want to let it go.”
One of many indispensable aspects in King’s further development of his world is “Paddington 2’s” gorgeous animation, which enables the animated Paddington to blend into and inhabit his live-action surroundings almost seamlessly. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the upgraded technology at hand was the reaction of Grant’s 89-year-old father when Grant took him to the London premiere in November. “He turned to me halfway through [the film] and asked, ‘Is that a real bear?’ ” said Grant, with a laugh.
But the animation on display in “Paddington 2” hasn’t just stunned audiences; it continues to be a marvel to even those in the cast and crew. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that technically brilliant and both visually and emotionally real,” said Bonneville. “With this second film, the animators have gone even further with the subtlety and the nuances of character that are there. For me, Paddington is an entirely real, three-dimensional character. I forgot that he wasn’t there most of the time.”
King will be the first to tell you that some of the trickiest animation sequences to execute are the ones that audiences would least expect to be difficult, citing a scene in which a single tear runs down Paddington’s cheek as an example. But from King’s vantage point, perfecting such animated sequences are more than worth the headaches they may cause, as they help the audience delve deeper into Paddington’s character.
“Knowing more about who Paddington is is really the challenge,” said King. “ ‘Can you do a bear acting well?’ is the really difficult bit. The acting is the greatest challenge. And in moments such as when Paddington cries in prison thinking that the Browns forgot about him, you’re right there with him, and you forget he’s not real. I think our team did an incredible job, and I’m really proud of the work.”
Though the proceedings benefit enormously from this, as King called it, “high-tech animation wizardry,” the heart of the franchise is and always will be Paddington’s kindness, selflessness and unbridled optimism.
According to King and Farnaby, whose many collaborative efforts date as far back as King directing Farnaby’s one-man plays in London shortly after they both graduated from college, crafting the plot for “Paddington 2” stemmed from finding the most adventurous ways they could put Paddington’s admirable core values to the test.
“Paddington has this amazing set of values that he’s inherited from his Aunt Lucy, who has brought him up so beautifully and taught him to always be kind and look for the good in people — to love thy neighbor,” stated King.
“It’s not standard to have someone who’s just so initially lovely to begin with as your protagonist. So what we wanted to do was find a story in which we tested those things to see how well those values withstand the cynical, real world. Can he hold onto his values? Does he ever lose faith in them? Those values are absolutely at the core of the film.
“He’s found a home, so there’s no way of him finding another home or anything like that, so Paul and I both said ‘we’re gonna have to move outside of the Brown family and have Paddington encounter other characters we hadn’t seen in the first film,” added Farnaby.
“We liked the idea of prison because it was a way to take him out of the family without the family throwing him out or have a falling out with him. The most important thing is getting the emotional spine in the right place, and thankfully, we hit that quite early. We knew we had that ace in the pocket with Aunt Lucy, and we just asked ‘how interesting can we make his journey leading to that point?’ ”
In order to create a story in which a naive, big-hearted person (or in this case bear) finds himself in a big, bustling city, King claimed that he and Farnaby were heavily influenced by Frank Capra films one might expect to serve as an archetype, such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” But according to Farnaby, he and King’s writing was also greatly inspired by a rather surprising source of material: the 1998 Coen Brothers’ classic “The Big Lebowski.”
“We thought ‘how simply can it start?’ and we landed on the idea that Paddington just wants to get his Aunt Lucy a birthday present,” explained Farnaby. “How wrong can it go from there? And we actually talked about “The Big Lebowski,” and how The Dude (Jeff Bridges) goes ‘all I wanted was my rug back.’ We kept saying as we were writing ‘let’s see how we can spin it and make it go bigger and bigger,’ while keeping in mind Paddington thinking ‘all I wanted to do was get my aunt Lucy a birthday present.’ ”
Finding plot threads that force Paddington out of the Brown’s house and into the community at large not only set the stage for Paddington’s interactions with comical new characters such as Grant’s Phoenix Buchanan and Gleeson’s Knuckles McGinty, but also enabled King and Farnaby to create a somewhat magical version of London in which interacting with a friendly bear is as normal as grabbing the morning newspaper. And creating this version of London gave King the opportunity to showcase the rich diversity by which London is distinguished in reality.
“London is in many ways a truly wonderful city,” said King. “I think it’s the only city in the world in which every language is spoken. It’s an incredibly diverse city, and the street we filmed on reflects that. London has many flaws — I don’t want to sound like I’m from the tourist board [laughs] — but there are many different housing associations and various projects that allow a broad cross-section of society to live actually next to each other without being compartmentalized. That’s a really lovely thing, and we wanted to reflect that London. We really wanted to send Paddington out into this world that we know and love and celebrate the multifaceted nature of the city.”
Indeed, “Paddington 2” serves as a celebration of not only diversity, but also of how invaluable showing kindness toward strangers is in society today. “Our primary goal was to expound upon the philosophies of kindness and looking for the good in people,” explained Farnaby.
“You can’t have enough of that in the world, really. And I suppose the question of ‘what do we value?’ is interesting. The neighbors don’t fully realize what Paddington has done for them until he’s gone. They realize that they should cherish these tiny acts of goodness.”
“Paddington shows us that small acts of kindness go a long way, and that courtesy and respect mean a great deal,” added Bonneville. “We’ve all been a Paddington at times, strangers in a strange place who need the kindness of strangers to get through, whether it be taking on a new job or moving to a new city or new school. If we can, in any way, reach those simple qualities of courtesy and kindness, then that’s a pretty good place to be in a world where, perhaps, those who should be our role models are not showing the courtesy toward, regard for and encouragement of others, and trying to encourage cohesion rather than division. I think it’s self-evident that people who come out of the theater having seen ‘Paddington 2’ feel a little bit better about the world, and that’s a nice thing to be part of.”
While the cast and filmmakers have been ecstatic about audiences’ overwhelmingly positive response to “Paddington 2” and its plea for being kind to one another, they have shared the film with somewhat of a heavy heart due to the fact that, on the last day of filming, Paddington author Michael Bond sadly passed away at the age of 91. For all involved with the “Paddington” franchise, Bond’s passing was akin to losing a father figure.
“One of the things that gave me such pleasure on the first film was Michael watching it,” recalled King, reflecting, with a smile slowly coming back to his face, on showing Bond the final cut of the original “Paddington” film.
“By that time, I had spent five years working on it, and he had spent 55 years writing Paddington stories. It was so in his soul. And, you know, you’re always nervous when you’re making a big film, especially for me; it was my first big movie and you’re nervous for a hundred reasons: whether the critics will like it, will it find an audience, will it get its money back, will you ever get the chance to do another one? And all of that, I could sort of cope with. But when Michael was watching the film, I was so nervous I couldn’t even stay seated next to him at the screening watching it. I realized that that was the only audience I really cared about, because Michael was like Paddington’s dad.”
“He had lived with Paddington for so long, and Michael’s daughter Karen told us how they always spoke about Paddington as if he were one of the family, it meant so much to them,” King continued.
“He was so overjoyed with the success of the first film and that it had found an audience and that it was true to the spirit of his creation. It meant the world to me that he was so happy. And it was so sad that he never got to see this one. We showed him a few sequences he really liked, and he sadly passed away before he could see the finished product. But I hope, wherever he is, he’s smiling down at our creation.”