This is a rerun of our review which was first published for the U.K. release of the film last fall.
First arriving courtesy of creator Michael Bond in 1958, Paddington Bear—a small furry thing in a duffel coat and a red hat with a fondness for marmalade sandwiches—has been beloved of generations of British children in book form. As such, you’d be forgiven for being cautious of his first big-screen adventure. Would this be a live-action/CGI travesty to match other recent examples like “Garfield” or “Marmaduke”? Or follow U.K. disasters like “Thunderbirds” and “Postman Pat” in irrevocably damaging childhood icons? After all, there’s been reason to be concerned: initial clips and trailers spawned the “Creepy Paddington” meme, and initial voice star Colin Firth stepped away from the project only a few months ahead of the film’s release.
But have no fear, in the hands of “Harry Potter” and “Gravity” producer/director David Heyman, and writer/director Paul King, “Paddington” is totally delightful. Updating Bond’s creation to the present day without losing the innocence, it’s a mix of the silliness of Monty Python, the heart and storytelling know-how of Pixar, and the art direction of Wes Anderson, with a ton of big laughs and heaps of visual invention. It might be the best family movie of the year (or of 2015, we suppose: after a small qualifying run, The Weinstein Company will open it in the U.S. in January).
The film opens with a clever, and “Up“-echoing faux sepia-toned serial, as an explorer (Tim Downie) ventures to darkest Peru, encountering a rare family of bears, helping to teach them English, and giving them a taste for marmalade sandwiches before returning to London, telling them they’ll always have a warm welcome if they ever come to visit. Years later, a young bear (Ben Whishaw) lives a life of bliss with his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), but when an earthquake destroys their home and causes tragedy (King is admirably unafraid of inflicting “Bambi“-style trauma on the younglings), our hero sets off after a new home, and the promised warm welcome, in London.
Initially it isn’t there: London’s modern-day commuters ignore the little bear as he sits in the station, Paddington, which gives him his name. Even the Brown family pass him by at first, the father (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey” fame) warning that the refugee is “probably trying to sell something.” But his wife (Sally Hawkins) gives the bear a chance, and he soon joins children Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris), plus elderly housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), at home at least for the night, with Mr. Brown hoping to reunite him with the explorer and get him out of their hair. But mad taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) has other plans: she wants to kill and stuff the bear for her collection.
First, some negatives. Once or twice (as the early teaser trailers might have indicated), King overeggs the slow-motion slapstick pudding. It’s become a recurring motif of modern comedy (and, it should be said, kids in our screening ate most of it up), but here, a couple of the instances feel lowest-common-denominator in a way that the rest of the movie doesn’t.
And while Kidman’s having fun as the Cruella DeVille-ish villain, and the script smartly gives her a surprising motivation for her pursuit of Paddington, she rarely feels like a real threat, and is somewhat extraneous to the real heart of the film. There’s an odd subplot with her and Peter Capaldi’s nosy neighbor that doesn’t go anywhere, and even in the climax, she’s only given one moment of real prominence. The film probably needed some kind of antagonist, but it’s possible that there could have been a version of Millicent that was better integrated into the story as a whole.
These issues aside, though, there’s not much to complain about here. Least of all the title character: on a relatively meager $55 million budget, the VFX wizards (last year’s “Gravity” Oscar winners Framestore, in fact) have come up with a hugely expressive, entirely believable creation who’s front-and-center throughout the movie, and is more or less instantly lovable (there’s no creepiness here at any point, really). And the decision to swap Whishaw in for Firth is one of the most crucial bits of recasting since Robert Zemeckis wondered if Eric Stoltz was the right Marty McFly. There’s an optimism, a boyishness, and innocence to Whishaw’s tones that it’s hard to imagine coming from the older Oscar-winning actor.
His flesh-and-blood human counterparts are just as strong. King, who came up from the British comedy world as a contemporary of the likes of Richard Ayoade, and who’s best known for “The Mighty Boosh,” has stacked the film with cameos from comedy pals like “Sightseers” duo Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, and Matt Lucas, all of whom liven up scenes (most valuable is Simon Farnaby, the lead of King’s previous feature “Bunny and the Bull“)
As for the Browns, the kids are both admirably unprecocious, and never come close to being annoying, which is always something to be thankful for when it comes to child actors. Bonneville, as the risk-obsessed, uptight-but-loving father, manages to remind that, away from his dull “Downton Abbey” performance, he’s a gifted comic actor, and there’s something genuinely moving about his gradual loosening up (without losing the acerbic wit). Hawkins is fantastic too, delivering consistently unexpected choices and bringing a lovely specificity to Mrs. Brown. As a family, each has their own satisfying arc, which King’s fat-free screenplay really sells without bashing you over the head with them.
Specificity’s a good term to talk about why the film’s turned out so well in general, in fact. There’s no homogenization or attempt to pander to a mass market, no product placement or montages set to jarring pop tracks (though Harvey Weinstein, inevitably, is adding a Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams collaboration to the U.S. release, which is hopefully just in the closing credits). There are pop culture references, but they’re organic rather than shoehorned in—particularly when it comes to a gorgeous Wes Anderson doll’s house homage, complete with Nick Urata‘s lovely score incorporating some Mark Mothersbaugh-ish harpischord—in the way that Edgar Wright might use them.
In fact, Wright’s a good reference point throughout to King, not surprising given their similar backgrounds and circles. Like the “Hot Fuzz” helmer, King has a keen sense of how to make comedy work visually, and the frame is usually packed with detail, throwaway gags or inventive framing or devices (shout out as well to “Submarine” and “The Double” DP Erik Wilson, who does a stellar job here). But he also knows when to just hold still, and there’s a surprising sense of silent comics like Harold Lloyd to the way Paddington clumsily causes chaos.
It’s not just funny, however (though it is very funny: one early joke involving a boxer caused the loudest laugh this writer’s emitted in a theater all year). The film’s a love letter to London, but more specifically London as a home to refugees and immigrants: Bond’s work always deliberately evoked both wartime evacuees, and the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain in the 1950s, and King maintains those parallels. Jim Broadbent‘s Mr. Gruber (because obviously Jim Broadbent was going to crop up somewhere) talks of escaping Germany on the Kindertransport, a sober, but not jarring, moment, while the bear’s arrival in London is greeted by Lord Kitchener‘s calypso classic “London Is The Place For Me,” played by an on-screen band who recur sweetly throughout the film. As with the source material, the Browns are firmly white middle-class, but we’re not in the whitewashed West London of certain other filmmakers, and at a time when a far-right, anti-immigration party are gaining increasing support in Britain, the film’s message of accepting and welcoming immigrants isn’t just important, it’s necessary.
Lord knows how the film will travel abroad (though it’s no more exclusionary British than Biggest Franchise In History “Harry Potter”), especially now The Weinstein Company have pushed it into the January doldrums. But for now, we’re just pleased to have a family film in the truest sense of the word, one that’s genuinely hilarious, touching and inventive to both kids and their parents. [A-]