Thursday, 6 March 2014

Paddington Bear - His Story So Far

"Please Look After This Bear. Thank You"
It's really no surprise as to why Michael Bond's Paddington Bear is still much-loved today. From how he earned his recognisable name to adjusting to his new life with the Browns, Paddington's adventures are captivated with much of the old British charm that appeals to all ages. Michael carved out of this little bear a very loveable, well-meaning character who is almost as accident prone as Mr. Bean, creating one sticky mess after another - with or without his marmalade at hand!

These stories, for those who have never read them, are extremely charming and are so wonderfully written they don't try hard at all to win over its audience regardless of age or genre. Compared to children's books today, it's incredible to see that while many try to keep up with the next current trend - whether it's space, pop stars, "anti-vampires", teenage wizards, reality parodies, snot-ridden monsters - this little chap is still around 56 years later and has hardly altered a bit, with the last "new" set of stories published in 2012 no less. Proof that Michael Bond's knack of creative storytelling hasn't dwindled in the least.

In fact, it's rather a surprise as to how far Paddington has come since 1958. Many will believe, as they will, that you will truly become a star once you make it big in America. Don't believe everything you hear, I say, but all the same it seems that even US audiences (or producers, one or the other) saw some appeal in this little bear from Darkest Peru - especially through animation.

Everyone knows the first animated series by Ivor Wood's FilmFair studio - who also brought to life another of Michael Bond's creations, The Herbs - narrated by the charming Sir Michael Hordern. This 1975 series really stood out by its unique animation style, in that Paddington was the only stop-motion puppet amongst hand-drawn 2D characters. Ivor Wood's animation is "basic" but wonderful to see, with every noise twitch or "dead faint" by Paddington, all accompanied very nicely with Michael's sparkling verbal comedy.
Next to being a hit in the UK, the series also aired as a segment in various kid's shows for PBS and HBO respectively.

And through those little segments, on such shows as Calliope, that Paddington's fame in the US began to grow - though not as far or wide as he had already become in his true home, the United Kingdom.

Whilst researching more of Paddington for this review, it came as a great surprise to me of learning that Hanna-Barbera took a shot at adapting Paddington Bear for the American audience as part of The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera in the late 80's. More incredible still that the titular character in this adaptation was voiced by Charlie Adler - more famous for his voice over work on Tiny Toon Adventures, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs...great surprise indeed!

Naturally, to the original British audience, it would come as something of a shocker to see Paddington in a totally different light. However, one has to give the team behind this version credit - they did try to remain faithful to Michael's stories and comedy style (adapting most of the earliest novels to a point), the characters and their settings remain British (with Tim Curry as Mr. Brown) and the animation, even for Hanna-Barbera at the time, is passable enough. The only "major" change here is the addition of an American Cousin for Jonathan and Judy Brown.

In fact, Bill and Joe also tried adapting another British Bear, SuperTed...but that's another story!

Later on down the line, FilmFair's television properties were bought out by Canadian-based Cinar (later re-branded as the Cookie Jar Group), and they did the whole world a favour by releasing nearly all its shows to DVD, Paddington included, digitally restored and everything. But they went one further than that...

In 1997, co-produced by Protécréa, Cinar / Cookie Jar brought forth another animated series of Paddington, which first aired in the States via HBO before it made its way to British Airwaves shortly after. With a nice little theme tune, splendid animation and a carefully chosen voice cast - which included Jonathan Kydd, Ève Karpf, Jon Glover and Nigel Lambert.

Perhaps because there are so few versions of Paddington to watch (which isn't bad at all), but when this series came about, it's interesting to see that Cookie Jar's animation team also had a go at adapting Michael's original stories, even a sizeable handful that neither FilmFair nor Hanna-Barbera had the chance to adapt.
Again, while some see it as a far cry from the days of Michael Horden, I remember this series quite fondly when it aired on CITV in the UK - and since rewatching a few episodes with new eyes and a better understanding, it's very interesting to see Cookie Jar's own personal touches while staying as faithful as possible to the original source. Even if wholly original material pops up, the air of Michael Bond is quite present throughout this series.

And now, there is to be a feature-length film based on Paddington, due to air in late 2014. When the news was first announced back in 2007, I was somewhat dubious as were many others, knowing all too well the costs that certain licensed characters have paid when brought to the big screen, British or American...and how this film would be yet another CGI / live-action hybrid, and how the screenplay "will draw inspiration from the whole series" rather than adapting the familiar stories yet again.

But then, what is there to worry about really? Paddington Brown has become as iconic as Big Ben and Buckingham Palace rolled into one, having been voted the UK's Best Animated Character at the British Animation Awards in 2012. The old stories are still in print and are retold to a new generation, with a sizeable amount of "new stories" from 2008 to go round. Why, Paddington is even the face of Marmalade in the UK!

With all that in mind, the screenwriters would not be so foolish as to write a feature-length story of a famous character they know or care little about, and not just for the money either. In any case, it's just another, not-so-subtle way of keeping this little bear alive for both long-time fans and a host of new ones to come.

It's especially important to note, as Cookie Jar's adaptation has proven, that with a dedicated producer and the right team involved - animators, writers, voice actors, the lot - a classic children's character can be brought to life properly without the need to "modernise" or ostracise the original stories entirely. Paddington is a rare case here as he slowly adjusts to "modern London" as seamlessly as anything without losing any of his original charm. Michael Bond demonstrates this in Paddington Races Ahead (2012) when the little bear misunderstands the concept of "Oyster Cards"...

So far as I have witnessed, every version of Paddington made has provided more positives than negatives, and rightly so. Therefore, I shall not let trepidation darken my hopeful curiosity. Because in the end, whatever the final product will be like, we'd be fools to not see this feature-length adventure with open eyes know...give it a chance!!