Based on Michael Bond’s popular picture book of the same name, Paddington is a movie about a bear cub who speaks English, wears a red hat and blue coat, and likes marmalade. You’d think that’s not a lot to hang a feature film upon. But in a pleasant surprise, the result is easily the best live action talking animal family comedy since Babe: Pig in the City, though that might say more about the usual level of quality in this particular subgenre than anything else. In the movie, Paddington and his bear family are CGI creations that at first look creepily real, more Country Bears than Alvin and the Chipmunks. But once I got used to looking at him and his interactions with a real human world, the more adorable he became. He’s an inquisitive little guy, pluckily charging forward hoping for the best. That’s a good description of the movie, too. It’s a pleasant, affable, likable little thing, funny, fuzzy, warm and goodhearted.
Paddington (Ben Whishaw) grew up in darkest Peru, where he was taught about London by his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and uncle (Michael Gambon). They had become Anglophiles after an explorer (Tim Downie) visited years earlier. After an earthquake destroys their jungle home, Paddington is sent off to London in search of a better life. His aunt lovingly places around his neck a note asking the recipient to take care of this little bear. It’s a softly downplayed immigrant story, with the bear washing up on London shores in need of help making sense of a new place, but with plenty of qualities – a killer marmalade recipe, for one – that’ll enrich the lives of those he meets. There’s some quiet metaphor work going on, especially with the cranky neighbor who worries about bears moving into his neighborhood.
Paddington’s found by a sweet family who take him to stay in their house that appears to be on the same street as the Banks in Mary Poppins. It’s definitely a Poppins set up, with a free-spirited mother (Sally Hawkins), stuffy all-business father (Hugh Bonneville), and a daughter and son (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) who are having troubles of their own. Then in comes Paddington, an openhearted, open-minded little fellow who quite by accident brings the family closer together. It’s a film that has lots of dependable bits of family film plot mechanics, from the boring dad who’s softened up by the events herein, to the kids who find a friend in a magical guest, to a protagonist who’s thrust into a new world and, despite some difficulties, learns to love it.
But it’s all so sweetly done, and writer-director Paul King brings a kind sense of humor and lovely visual style, from intricate whimsical production design, to Wes-Anderson-esque dollhouse constructions, to clever cutting and crisp wordplay. The funniest joke is also the simplest: no one finds the talking bear strange at all, and treat him like they would a human child. There are amusing sequences in which he slowly destroys his surroundings while attempting a simple task, wrecking a bathroom or covering himself head to toe in tape. My favorite was a chase scene in which the bear floats by a schoolroom studying Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. “Exit pursued by a— ” “Paddington!” The amusing slapstick and cute misunderstandings are bolstered by an undemanding plot and a troop of fine British actors (the leads, as well as Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent in supporting roles) who kids growing up on this movie will later recognize if they ever catch up on old BBC programming or the films of Mike Leigh.
I’m not sure if a film so sugary English, with nicely small character moments and a charming shaggy tone, needs a villain, but Nicole Kidman plays an ice cold taxidermist about as well as she could. She’s a Cruella de Vil type with a Hitchcockian blonde bob, strutting about wanting to add a talking bear to her collection. Her scenes are few, and of a slightly different tone than the sentimental slapstick culture clash comedy elsewhere, but such pro forma kids’ film villainy is the impetus to finally bring all the characters together in support of the bear they’ve come to love. And by then, I’d also found much to love in Paddington, and was glad to see the film resolve so neatly.