It may or may not come as a surprise to you that one of my most eagerly anticipated titles of 2014 is “Paddington,” a British family film that begins shooting at the end of this month. Chances are some American readers are unfamiliar with the antics of Paddington Bear, the accident-prone hero of British author Michael Bond’s best-selling series of children’s books, but he was a rather significant part of my childhood.
The adventures of the lovable ursine hero, a Peruvian stowaway adopted by a well-to-do London family with predictably chaotic consequences, were read to me as bedtime stories by my dad — himself a child when the character first appeared in print in 1958, and a dyed-in-the-wool fan. I continued through the series (which now numbers 21 books, the most recent, Olympic-themed volume appearing last year) as I learned to read myself. I had a heavily-played VHS cassette of his stop-motion animated shorts from the 1970s. And yes, I had a small Paddington teddy bear, complete with his signature duffel-coat and shapeless hat. Paddington was to me as Harry Potter is to a younger generation of kids.
So it’s somewhat appropriate that Paddington’s first-ever feature film is being produced by David Heyman, the BAFTA-winning British super-producer who shepherded all eight installments of the “Harry Potter” series to the screen. “Paddington” is obviously a very different prospect: this is a jauntier, more episodic literary franchise, the only supernatural element of which is that its hero is, well, a talking bear. Still, it’s a project dependent both on a blithe sense of English whimsy and state-of-the-art visual effects, both areas in which Heyman has ample experience.
Speaking of state-of-the-art visual effects, Heyman’s also a producer on Alfonso Cuarón’s outer-space spectacle “Gravity.” In a recent interview with HitFix for that imminent release, Heyman also shared some of his perspective on “Paddington” — which, he says, “has been a long time in the making.”
Once a Warner Bros. project, it’s now been adopted by StudioCanal in the UK, with director Paul King (best known for way-out British TV sitcom “The Mighty Boosh” and the striking, semi-related avant-garde film “Bunny and the Bull”) at the helm. Colin Firth has been tapped to voice the ever-polite title character, while the film’s live-action cast includes Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters and Hugh Bonneville. Framestore, the London-based VFX outfit that won an Oscar for “The Golden Compass” and also worked on the entire “Harry Potter” series, is handling the magic side of things.
So far, so good. “I’m very excited about what we will do,” says Heyman. “It’s got a good cast and it’s fun. It’s great, having worked on it for even longer than ‘Gravity’ — a lot longer — to finally see it becoming real.”
If you’re wondering whether there’s a contemporary audience for what some may see as a rather quaint children’s character — and one celebrating his 55th birthday this year, to boot — Heyman has no such doubts. Explaining that the stories have been updated to a present-day setting, he notes that though the original tale “was written in the 50s, and [the script has] that spirit, we’ve adapted it and modernized it. It’s set contemporary in our story. The author, Michael Bond, is really pleased with what we have done. And I think that it is timeless.”
Moreover, Heyman believes that “Paddington” has universal reach; it won’t just be Brits who relate to the fish-out-of-water story of character who leaves his family behind in the Peruvian capital of Lima to seek a better life in London.
“It’s about an immigrant trying to find a home,” he says. “Home is not necessarily where you’re from but it’s about making your own home. Listen, America is a nation made up of immigrants. The UK and the West Indian — the Indian immigrants… it’s a big part of our world. World wars, refugees – it’s an issue in many, many places. He’s an immigrant as a character, but really it’s about finding a home.”
We’ll no doubt be hearing more about “Paddington” as it heads toward our screens next year. Meanwhile, look out for our “Gravity” interviews — including ones with Alfonso Cuarón and Sandra Bullock — heading your way soon.