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!!


Monday, 24 February 2014

St. Bearnard

St. Bernard / Grizzly Bear mix.

In a way, St. Bernards are rather bear-like in build - they have to be for all the alpine rescuing most of them do. You could argue and say that Polar Bear might be a better fit here...but somehow, to me at least, it'll seem too cliché =P

Friday, 21 February 2014

A Shark In The Bath probably still not as scary as finding a Spider in a bath, to be sure of.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Insektors (1994)

You really can't help but admire the French sometimes - when it comes to animation they always manage to surprise and amaze us all. With feature-length movies like The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest and Celestine or shows for the small screen such as Zig and Sharko. Each in their own way showcases sparkling talent that plays a part in pushing the boundaries of animation, with changes nearly always for the greater good.

This little gem is such an example, both to the animation world and my own childhood during the 90's. Once part of the defunct children's schedule for Channel 4 of the UK, Insektors was one of my highlights every weekend morning. But even after rediscovering this series only recently did I realise that there was plenty more that I knew little about...!

Insektors tells the story of two colonies of insects: the colourful, cheerful Verigreens and the dark, gloomy Kruds. Basically, your average Good vs Evil show, and yet it offers so much more that made it stand out. Not just with compelling storytelling and characters, I might add.

At the time it was one of the very first kids shows animated in full CGI by Fantome in France, which was formed in 1985 by creators Renato and Georges Lacroix. Snobby animation heads may think its style looks "primitive" to current CGI studios, but many fans consider it ahead of its time: one of the cogs, you might say, in helping to shape Computer Graphics to what it is able to do now.
It was a time when Pixar was slowly taking shape with developing Toy Story, trying to find its footing with a new form of animation. Fantome studios just gave folks something more to consider with how CGI should look, feel and move - and even for a mid-90's made-for-TV series, it still holds its own today I feel.

And not only did it exceed in animation but also in writing - at least, the British version I grew up with. At 10 years old, I was totally unaware that it was originally a French production where, in similar vein to The Magic Roundabout, great sections were rewritten when the show was redubbed for English speaking countries. Character names and dialogue were changed almost entirely, leaving little of the original French scripts. Interestingly, the Verigreens were known as "Joyces" and the Kruds were "Yuks".
The series was also adapted for other European countries including Germany, Spain, Italy and Russia. But even more intriguing was the North American dub, which stayed much closer to Eric Rondeaux and Véronique Herbaut's original scripts (including character names) than the British version. That's not to say that the UK dub was poor, far from it - if The Magic Roundabout benefited from Eric Thompson's "revisions", than the British version of Insektors certainly learnt a lot from it!

The credit is all down to writers Teddy Kempner and Andrew Seacombe, the latter being the son of Harry Seacombe, who was one of the key players of the manic British Radio programme of yesteryear The Goon Show. Clearly, much of Andy's own surreal humour came into play when adapting Insektors to suit the British audience. Constant jokes and references to British culture made the UK dub more quick-witted with one-liners a-plenty - helped enormously by the variety of accents to match, ranging from Welsh, Scottish, West Country and...Japanese?!
In short, it was a show meant for kids, and yet it refused to talk down to its audience. Brilliant stuff!

Though smaller than the NA voice cast, the cast for the UK dub played their parts very well and rarely missed a beat in delivery. It's not surprising that Teddy and Andy were amongst the chosen alongside Neil McCaul and Caroline Bliss. It's thanks to them that I - among many others - can still remember almost every episode and quote rewritten for British waters (to add, they even found a way to make the symbolic "K" more prominent for the 'Krudds'). Although the NA dub deserves as much praise for equal performance and quality, even if their versions are harder to track down online.
But whatever language you prefer it in, Insektors has gained a much-admired following ever since with two seasons plus a Christmas Special - some folks may disagree with my thoughts, but I still believe, in its own, quiet way, the team behind Insektors helped to shape the future of CGI animation worldwide, both for the big screen and television.

Four years later, however, Pixar and Dreamworks would bring to us A Bug's Life and Antz almost simultaneously, both which pushed aside the Insektors out of the spotlight and towards least from those outside of their small but dedicated fanbase, who look forward to the day when a complete DVD collection is released for everyone - French, British, Portuguese - to enjoy all over again =)

Season 1 Playlist:


Friday, 17 January 2014

Towser (1982)

As I may have mentioned before, Tony Ross is one of the UK's busiest children's writer and illustrator with hundreds of thousands of books to his name. But strangely, with few TV credits. Only a handful of his books and characters have been adapted to television - his Little Princess, several stories for Anytime Tales and my personal favourite, Towser.

Towser is without doubt one of Tony's most brilliant creations, a character children and adults of all generations will adore. Tony has had enough sense not to talk down to kids when writing for them, instead using humour as his secret weapon with creative storytelling.

The hero of the original books is a little terrier dog with a gloomy-looking face, who somehow manages to stumble into a variety of odd adventures with even odder characters. What I think makes Towser so appealing is that there are many sides to him: sometimes he's helpful, sometimes he's cheeky, but what he does not lack in is determination and a sly attitude. He even follows in the paw-prints of Bugs Bunny at times when it comes to dealing with troublesome characters like the Terrible Thing, Goblin Gobble and a rather confused Alien Invader from the Planet Nice, all by using his brains.

Towser, the Alien and the Owl
But that's not all: Tony Ross throws in a good range of characters for Towser to play off, all who offer fun, varied storytelling potential - magic from the Wizard, science with Dr. Smellie, royalty with the King and "normal" characters like Sadie the Kitten for some down-to-earth humour. There's even the Owl, who fulfils a role similar to Hamlet the Cat of King Rollo; aka, a curious observer of the main story.

Towser and Friends
And when King Rollo Films adapted Tony's stories to the small screen, the fun just doubled from there! Although uncredited, animator Leo Nielsen (now Owner and Producing Director of the company) brings such life and energy to each character, all with their own unique style of movement. And all with the use of cut-out animation, which continues today, albeit within the use of computers than the traditional means. Tony even went as far as drawing the artwork himself for Leo to use, which included backgrounds and every character limb necessary.

Roy Kinnear (SuperTed, Bertha) adds the icing to this wonderful cake as the storyteller, delivering each one-liner from Towser perfectly. No one could have done a better job with his gentle yet enthusiastic style, and giving just the right voice to all characters, main or secondary.

Towser meets the Nosey Parker
I used to adore watching Towser when it was part of the children's line-up for Channel 4 once upon a time, and so I was delighted to see that all 26 episodes had made their way to DVD at long last. Demand Media have done an exceptional job of restoring the episodes with clear sound and even clearer picture (not unlike King Rollo, which suffered a good deal of grain on-screen due to age), and I surely hope that those who grew up with the series themselves will buy it for their little ones to enjoy almost as much as they (and I) surely have =)


Happy 2014

Late for the 2014 party with this blog, but oh well - better late than never!

I couldn't decide which doodle to turn into a completed pic for the New Year, so I decided to go out with puns a-blazing! ;-)

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas from 2013

And Happy Holidays to all!