With one paw in the cinematic strategies of the past and the other in pure post-modern magic, Paddington is no run-of-the-mill kid's flick.
PaddingtonDirector: Paul King
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw
US Release Date: 2015-01-16
UK Release Date: 2014-11-28
He comes from Peru. Though he's socially awkward, he's still very polite and extremely well mannered. He has a thing for marmalade, and he always keeps a spare jelly sandwich in his floppy explorer's hat, just for emergencies. As the star of Michael Bond's magical Paddington Bear books, the loveable bruin with a heart of gold and a head for trouble should have already been the source of several sensational family films, not just one. Still, after decades of development, we finally have our full length feature film, and it's terrific.
Not that US distributor The Weinstein Company would tell you this, of course. In fact, no other family film -- save the upcoming LucasArts release Strange Magic -- has received less positive attention than Paddington. When it was first announced, a tepid teaser offered little insight. Then it was reported that Oscar winner Colin Firth was out as the voice of the titular bear, with Ben Whishaw filling his place. Immediately, pundits claimed trouble in cartoon paradise. Then came the official trailer, a mishmash of overly familiar comic beats and shrill, over-the-top antics.
So imagine how shocked the audience will be when they see the standard family film free-for-all turn instead into a wonderful universal entertainment in Paddington. Thanks to the diligent artistic efforts of director/co-writer Paul King (of oddball British TV series The Mighty Boosh fame) and his collaborator Hamish McCall (whose worked on a couple of Rowan Atkinson's big screen efforts), a careful balance between sentimentality and slapstick is deftly maintained, allowing the heart and humanity of the characters to shine through -- yes, even the computer-generated character.
We first learn of these rare talking bears from a prologue that introduces famed British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie). He discovers Paddington's family and after a few days living with them, offers them a return invite to stay in London, should they ever get the chance. When, years later, an earthquake hits their Peruvian homeland, Paddington (Whishaw) is sent off to England. There, he discovers that everything isn't as friendly and warm as Clyde made it out to be. Eventually, he runs into and is embraced by the bumbling Brown family.
Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is a cranky risk analyst, while his wife (Sally Hawkins) illustrates books. They have two children -- dour teen Judy (Madeline Harris) and curious boy Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) -- and a helpful housekeeper (Julie Walters). While Paddington's first few days see some awkward attempts at acclimation, he eventually starts to fit in. Unbeknownst to him, however, there are forces conspiring to keep him "in this place". One is nosy neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi). The other is Millicent (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist for the National Museum who wants the rare bear for her "collection".
With one paw in the cinematic strategies of the past and the other in pure post-modern magic, Paddington is the kind of matinee fodder the film biz has forgotten how to make. It's witty and warm. It's clever without being cloying or overly cute. King creates a world unto itself here, a vision of England that's both contemporary and completely in line with Bond's books, most of which were written in the '50s and '60s. The Browns themselves live in a world that's both whimsical and workaday, their lives turned upside down by the inclusion of their furry little guest. Yes, we do get a sequence where Paddington destroys the upstairs bathroom and another where he "flies" over the streets of London, but both are handled in ways that emphasize the fun, rather than patronizing an attention-deficit audience of children.
There are also quieter moments with intriguing subtexts. Indeed, parents will instantly pick up on the immigration debate going on in between jars of marmalade. Paddington wears a paper label around his neck a la the Children of the Blitz, and his relocation smacks of the same train station oriented relocation and approach. Later on, Mr. Curry has a conversation with Kidman's evil museum worker that's all racial innuendo and subtle stereotyping. While her motives for "removing" Paddington don't revolve around race, she is more than happy to use the bruin's "minority status" as a means of getting what she wants.
King is also very clever in his casting. Both Bonneville and Hawkins are sensational, each one offering a different side of the kind of caring Paddington requires. He is no-nonsense but protective. She's overly concerned if still clear-headed. Even the kids bring out the best in the narrative. As our villain, Kidman is completely convincing. She doesn't chew the scenery so much as let her porcelain persona do most of the evil lifting. The story never strays, always focused on finding Paddington a "proper" family and the various adventures add up to an emotional investment that pays off in a few tears come finale time.
Unfortunately, one fears that the potential demographic, already battle-weary from a 2014 onslaught of power robots, spy penguins, and animated building blocks, will leave poor little Paddington at the train station, just like the Browns almost did. However, if equally fatigued Moms and Dads give this unqualified gem a chance, they'll discover something that both they and their wee ones will enjoy equally. Six months ago, one could have easily predicted that Paddington would be just another lame excuse to get the kiddies into the Cineplex. Now that it's finally out, however, it's easy to see that it's a certifiable delight.