“Paddington” is a film that was never on my radar, that is until I noticed the waves of positive reviews coming from overseas. Suddenly I found myself paying attention to its United States debut. The film is based on the classic children’s literature series by Michael Bond. “Paddington” was announced eight years ago with Colin Firth set to voice the cuddly brown bear with a penchant for marmalade. The film finally began shooting in 2013 with Firth out and Ben Wishaw taking his place.
You remember the story of Paddington Bear, right? Forced to leave his home in the jungles of darkest Peru, Paddington, part of a special species of intelligent bears, sets out to find a new home. Many years earlier his family was discovered by an English explorer who told them they would always be welcome at his home in London. A desperate Paddington hitches a ride on a cargo ship and arrives in London where he expects overflowing kindness and of course a new place to call home.
But things couldn’t be more different for this gentle and optimistic bear. He quickly finds that the people in London are as cold and unpleasant as the weather. Pushed aside and brushed off, Paddington begins to lose faith. But then he meets the Brown family. The wife and mother Mary (Sally Hawkins) and the youngest child Johnathan (Samuel Joslin) are both kind-hearted and compassionate. They convince the reluctant husband and father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and their grumpy daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris) to let Paddington stay one night and then help him find the explorer who his family met in Peru several years earlier.
“Paddington” almost feels like two different movies. On the one side you have Paddington, his relationship with the Brown family, and his ‘fish out of water’ adjustments to life in the big city of London. This is the bulk of the film and it’s where “Paddington” absolutely sparkles. There is such a well conceived mixture of fun, playful slapstick and intelligent, heartfelt warmth. The film has a few big, wacky scenes, but they work because director Paul King doesn’t bury the material with the constant barrage of loud, frantic slapstick we get from most animated features. He always pulls back and then gives us scenes that humanize the story and the characters (even the bear).
Another reason these moments are so effective is because Paddington the character isn’t irritating, juvenile, or superficial. He’s charming, well mannered, and surprisingly genuine. It’s easy to love him and sympathize with his situation while also laughing at his well-meaning antics and the circumambient British wit. There is also enough substance and authenticity to his story and his relationships to give the movie a subtle emotional pop that I never saw coming. I was moved by an early train station scene inspired by a post-World War 2 reality and a one-word line of dialogue from Paddington himself near the end was absolutely perfect.
But then there is that other movie I mentioned. Unfortunately King and co-writer Hamish McColl felt the need to shoehorn in an antagonist played by Nicole Kidman. A short side-story unfolds telling us of how Kidman’s mad taxidermist is intent on catching and stuffing Paddington. It’s silly, over-the-top, and it ultimately distracts from all of the things the movie does so well. The movie also follows a pretty predictable blueprint and it employs one of my least favorite narrative shortcuts – the big ‘this is the moral of the story’ speech at the end. These are all noticeable flaws, but thankfully they don’t kill the movie.
I could spend time talking about the fine performances from the tender-voiced Wishaw, from Hugh Bonneville, and especially Sally Hawkins. I could talk about the amazing job of mixing stunning CGI effects with live action. I could talk about the cool and artistic visual flair that Paul King brings to the film. There is so much I loved about the movie. Sure it has a few hiccups, but “Paddington” is such a welcomed treat. It’s head-and-shoulders above most of the PG-rated effects-driven family movies that we often get. Talk about a smart and entertaining surprise. Now pass me the marmalade.