Cover the little ones’ ears as what I am about to reveal may cause alarm: Paddington Bear isn’t real. Back in cinemas this week, he does look for all the world like the marmalade fixated Peruvian migrant of Michael Bond’s stories and the BBC animated series that used to act as a bumper between kids’ TV and the news. But he’s a fake bear. There is no breath in his lungs, just binary zeroes and ones.
Like Baloo and Bagheera in last year’s computer-generated retread of The Jungle Book, or Dobby the house elf in Harry Potter, or the BFG, or the Smurfs, or whatever that furry little gremlin is in the Last Jedi trailer, these virtual heroes of family-friendly cinema are mere spectres.
Nobody over six was fooled when “Paddington” turned up at Paddington Station the other week and danced with the Duchess of Cambridge at a children’s charity event. He was clearly a person in a bear suit. But the hi-tech nature of family entertainment in the 21st century means that everything on screen now looks very real, but almost nothing is.
The only greenery surrounding child actor Neel Sethi’s Mowgli in The Jungle Book was the screen behind him, onto which a verdant fantasia was digitally pasted. It looked technically amazing but was somehow harder to love than the original characters that Uncle Walt’s team hand-painted in 1967. Sci-fi adventure Thunderbirds used to involve actual marionettes operated by pulling strings. Is the CGI reboot progress? It depends on your vintage – and whether or not you are a trained puppeteer looking at your bank statement.
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To be fair to what is now the Paddington film franchise, the bear has been looked after, as per the instruction on his original label. Sympathetically developed from a stop-motion cuddly toy to a computer programme whose every strand of fur has its own algorithm, he has an appeal that seems undimmed in CGI form. This is thanks in part to the decent script and fabulous cast gathered around him.
For the sequel (released in cinemas on Friday 10 November), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters are joined by Brendan Gleeson, something of a live-action/animation god. He’s one of the live actors in The Smurfs 2, a voice artist in Aardman stop-motion triumph The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! and he was also motion-captured in Beowulf.
I care about this stuff and here’s why. When I was seven, my teacher Mrs Monroe asked us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wanted to be a cartoonist and drew a picture of myself, well, drawing pictures. There I was in my imagination, sitting at a table just felt-tipping cartoons of TV characters like Top Cat and Deputy Dawg, with sheets of paper flying off into the air. Aged seven, this seemed a realistic vision of how a cartoonist might make a living. The older I got, the more arduous that dream job started to look, as I was exposed to behind-the-scenes footage of Disney artists toiling in Californian cubicles.
I never did apply for a job at Disney, nor Hanna Barbera, but I never lost my interest in the evolution of the craft. I remember being knocked out by a clip of Jerry from Tom and Jerry dancing with a corporeal Gene Kelly in 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh. Then it was Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke backed by a cartoon cockney band for Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. This merging of media reached new, sophisticated heights in 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, whose ground-breaking blend of animation and live-action allowed David Tomlinson to referee a football match played by wild animals.
My love of old-school techniques does not mean I’m a Luddite. But I have to admit identifying with Charlie Higson’s animator in the Aardman-parodying Fast Show sketch, as he demonstrates to Paul Whitehouse’s initially polite interviewer how a plasticine Wallace-type puppet is moved “a tiny amount”, then another “tiny amount”… until Whitehouse snaps and suggests going to the pub.
As Disney’s technological overhaul of its back catalogue continues, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast will soon be joined by Poppins and The Lion King. And who can blame them when the green-screen Jungle Book made almost $1 billion? That said, the 1967 original made $657 million in today’s money, which isn’t bad for a series of paintings that merely created the illusion of movement – with not a single binary zero or one in sight.
Paddington 2 hits UK cinemas on Friday 10th November