Paul King, the writer and director of the new British family film "Paddington," recalled the dread that came over people's faces when he mentioned he was doing a movie about the adorable young bear that has enchanted children for nearly six decades.
People were anxious, King said, that their childhood memories of author Michael Bond's sweet and comical adventures of the young Peruvian bear who finds himself at London's Paddington station would be sullied as a computer-generated creature.
"The person I was most nervous about was Michael Bond, really, who is still very much alive and was very much involved in developing the script," King said. "I worked on the film for five years, but he's worked on the stories for 56 years. It was so part of his life, the idea that we would do something that wasn't quite right would have been heartbreaking. I couldn't watch it with him. I was too nervous."
But King received a phone call shortly after the screening to let him know that Bond loved it.
"That was a great day in my life," King recalled.
"I've now seen it twice and can't wait to see it again," said Bond, 89, in an email interview from Britain.
Bond felt his little bear, who keeps his marmalade sandwiches in his scruffy hat, would be in good hands when he met the cast and crew at the beginning of the production.,
"Nearly all of them had been brought up on the Paddington books, which was wonderful," he said. "There was a lovely atmosphere from the start."
"Paddington" stars Hugh Bonneville from "Downton Abbey" as the serious-minded patriarch of the Brown family, who takes in the little bear after finding him at Paddington station wearing a tag that says "please look after this bear." Sally Hawkins plays the sweet and trusting Brown matriarch; Julie Walters is their eccentric housekeeper; and Nicole Kidman plays Paddington's nemesis, who wants to make him into a stuffed bear.
British actor Ben Whishaw supplies the voice of Paddington, beautifully capturing the bear's sweetness, humor and innocence.
The comedy, which arrived on U.S. shores Friday, is already an international hit, having earned $122.2 million in less than two months. Earlier this month, "Paddington" received two BAFTA nominations, including best British film. The film has warmed the hearts of critics, scoring an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Paddington has been the subject of a stage musical and an acclaimed stop-frame animation British TV series featuring the voice of Michael Hordern. Though Bond had been approached on a number of occasions about a feature film, he thought that "the time wasn't right."
"In truth, I think the technology has only developed now to a point where you can tell the story," said producer David Heyman ("Harry Potter," "Gravity"), who, like King, grew up with Paddington. (His mother still has his stuffed Paddington bear.)
"You need Paddington to be a character who makes you laugh, makes you cry and you feel you can relate to and care for," Heyman said. "To do that with a digital character is not easy. Ten years ago, it may not have been possible."
King and Heyman wanted the film to not only capture the comedic side of Paddington — he's sort of a Buster Keaton with fur — but also his yearning for acceptance and love.
"I don't think I realized the thematic richness of Paddington when I was 5, 6 and 7 years-old," Heyman said.
When King and Heyman began discussing the film, they agreed that they "didn't want to do a film that just kind of used a figure from people's childhoods for the sake of it," King said. "There are loads of talking animals in children's fiction and comic sort of things, but I always thought the label — please look after this bear — is emblematic of what really works about him. He is an outsider in the world."
King thought those themes were universal. "We want to find a home and acceptance. We want to feel loved. I felt that worked on a personal level. It felt like a warm and positive theme."
The Oscar- and BAFTA-award-winning effects house Framestore had the daunting task of bringing Peggy Fortnum's Paddington illustrations to life as a CGI character.
"We wanted to make a bear that was as photo-realistic as possible so people would relate to him and would fit in with the live actions," animation director Pablo Grillo said. "But at the same time pay absolute homage to the charming images we were all familiar with."
Fusing those images, Grillo said, was difficult. "The original images — the charm comes from the simplicity — two dots for eyes, a simple little smile to one side. To try to create something that is photo-realistic and has all the details of a real bear — it took a lot of testing and finding cubs and real animals that already have a natural charm."
The design somewhat changed when Oscar-winning Colin Firth, who had been cast as Paddington, left the project.
"He is one of my favorite performers," King said of Firth. "I was so pleased when we got him on board, but when you started hearing his voice come out of the bear, you couldn't quite believe it. He was so aware of it before I was even. He said I'm not quite right for the character."
Enter Whishaw, an award-winning British actor best known as Q in "Skyfall." King had seen him in various projects, especially the TV series "The Hour," in which Whishaw demonstrated his comedic chops. "I knew he was a brilliant actor and could do that vulnerability."
Though Paddington is known in the U.S., he doesn't have the iconic status he enjoys in Britain. But Heyman noted that lack of familiarity so far hasn't hurt "Paddington" at the box office internationally.
"It's interesting that in France and Germany, countries where Paddington is not known at all, the film has done extremely well," he said. "I don't know if the story of an innocent is quite as welcomed [in the U.S.]. But I have to say that the themes of outsiders and immigrants is an American story. America is a nation made up of immigrants, and Paddington is an immigrant in search of a home."