You have every reason to fear the worst from a movie like Paddington. It’s a live-action adaptation of a beloved children’s series starring a talking CGI creature interacting with flesh and blood people, featuring a handful of far-too-obvious musical cues and wacky slapstick purely for its own sake. It’s also a movie released in the heart of January, and when have we ever been able to trust any movie that comes out in January?
As it turns out, that’s the sort of prejudice Paddington is built to address, and if the film has any lesson to impart on its young audience, it’s not to judge a book (or someone from another country) by its cover. What could easily have become another in a long history of lazy studio cash-grabs is instead a lovingly-crafted film appealing to our better natures as human beings. It’s one of the most sincerely adorable children’s films I’ve seen in a long time, and if you’re familiar with my regular movie beat, you’ll know that’s saying something.
After an opening travelogue detailing an English explorer’s encounter with two talking bears in Darkest Peru, we’re introduced to the bears’ young nephew (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in the present day. When his forest home is leveled by some unseen calamity, his aunt sends him off to find a new home for himself in London. Hoping the rest of London is as kind as the old explorer, she tells him, “They would not have forgotten how to treat a stranger.” Upon arriving in London, he is immediately lost in the shuffle of a busy, uninviting metropolis.
Sitting all alone in Paddington Station with a tag around his neck that reads “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR,” he is finally discovered by the Brown family. Mary (Sally Hawkins), the family’s bleeding heart mother, insists on bringing him home, while her more uptight husband, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), assumes the bear is pulling some kind of grift on his family, or at the very least is liable to destroy their home. While Mary helps Paddington track down the old explorer, their next-door neighbor (Peter Capaldi) teams up with an insane taxidermist named Millicent (Nicole Kidman) to capture Paddington and put him in a museum.
On paper, that’s pretty much what you’d expect out of a Paddington film, or any children’s film, for that matter. What sets Paddington apart is in writer/director Paul King’s execution. With a series like The Mighty Boosh under his belt, it seems at times like there isn’t anything he can’t or won’t do to liven up his film. The whole thing moves at a fun, jaunty clip, aided in part by some delightfully bouncy music by calypso band De Lime, who keep popping up during scene transitions playing their next tune. It’s an odd touch that helps take the sting out of some of the film’s tackier musical choices.
King’s direction also allows the story to breathe, which is great since there isn’t really much to begin with. He uses that extra time to let Paddington explore his new world through comic setpieces and some lovely character beats. Paddington describes the Brown family to us as though he’s narrating his own travelogue. We see their habits and routines play out in a dollhouse that opens into a cross section of the Browns’ home. It’s a fun way of illustrating the family dynamic without simply telling us what roles everyone plays. There are visual flourishes like this at every turn, many helping convey the story’s themes of compassion and hospitality to outsiders.
At one point, Paddington’s journey is compared to that of antique dealer Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), who tells Paddington of his own immigration to England during World War II. Later, the film plays its final card by revealing that Millicent’s fascination with Paddington is fairly insidious, and has ties to her family’s colonialist past. It’s a weirdly specific plot device, but it serve’s the film’s themes just fine. It’s bold to paint British imperialism in such a harsh light in a children’s film, but it’s a stance worth illustrating. Too many children’s films pull their punches when it comes to this kind of thing, but the fact that Paddington layers in subtle history lessons like these lends it an air of credibility that most films of this kind simply can’t muster.
Paddington isn’t a perfect film, of course. King’s screenplay has plenty of dramatic tension already without a cartoonish animal killer on the loose. Mr. Brown’s reluctance to open his home to Paddington is all the tension a film like this needs, and it does a far better job of driving home the point. Nicole Kidman seems like she’s starring in the bizarro Hollywood version of Paddington, where the person out to get the talking animal is obviously out for blood. It’s less a problem with Kidman’s performance than her role in the story. In a film so carefully layered, her character feels poorly conceived.
That’s one issue in a sea of successes, though. Paddington succeeds on the vision of its director, the strength of a cast game for anything, and the main character’s unwavering politeness. Michael Bond, who created the character in 1958, makes a brief appearance raising a glass to Paddington as he passes by in a taxi, seemingly giving the film his seal of approval. Paddington is good enough for him, and it’s good enough for me. I’m as surprised as you are.Liked This? Share It!