There are so many reasons why ‘Paddington’ shouldn’t work as a movie. Chief among them, of course, is the fact that this is a contemporary CGI-fueled update of a quaint old children’s book series. We’ve been down that road countless times before, and this should be yet another example of that endlessly disappointing trend in contemporary family filmmaking. And yet, against all the odds, ‘Paddington’ is an incredibly charming and at times downright enchanting little movie that I can’t recommend enough.
The movie kicks off with a delightful black-and-white Academy Ratio prologue parodying old-timey documentaries. We see a British explorer discover a family of hyper-intelligent bears in Peru, encourage language, feed them marmalade, and teach them a love of London before whisking away. From there, we flash-forward to the present day. Through a series of bumblings and mishaps, Paddington (a vertical, speaking, polite bear who is the child of the bears from the prologue and voiced by Ben Whishaw) finds his way to London. Rather quickly, he’s picked up by a family from the train station and taken into their home.
Dad (Hugh Bonneville) is an uptight risk management specialist with all that implies. Mom (Sally Hawkins) is a children’s book illustrator with a hyper imagination and hunger for adventure. Their son (Samuel Joslin) is a wee lad bursting with energy, and their daughter (Madeleine Harris) is a cynical ‘tween embarrassed by them all. At first, the bear and family don’t get along, but soon Paddington charms them into submission. Complicating matters are a nosy neighbor (Peter Capaldi) and a helmet-haired taxidermist villainess (Nicole Kidman) on the hunt for Paddington. I know it all sounds very maudlin and predictable, yet somehow it isn’t.
The secret to the film’s success is simple. The producers were wise enough to hand the property over to a creative writer/director whose passion for the project was as undeniable as his desire to reinvent the material. Paul King honed his style directing quirky British television shows like ‘The Mighty Boosh’ and previously made a promisingly flawed feature debut with ‘Bunny and the Bull’. He’s a filmmaker with a distinctly surreal and whimsical sensibility that fits ‘Paddington’ perfectly.
First of all, the film is very funny. King has a sardonic and subversive kick to his comedy that he peppers throughout the movie and puts into the mouths of a cavalcade of cameos from brilliant British comics. To balance all the bizarre humor, King doubles down on whimsy to magical effect. Taking a page from the Wes Anderson playbook, he often splits the family home into a dollhouse diorama and floats his camera freely between rooms accompanied subdued voiceover. The movie has a dash of ‘Mary Poppins’ in just the right amount as well. This isn’t just your usual children’s fantasy film product. ‘Paddington’ comes laced with a genuine sense of magic realism, with all the childish wonderment and swelling emotion that comes with it.
What King has delivered is a Paddington Bear movie that is at once willing to mock the outdated innocence of Michael Bond’s ancient stories and also fully embrace their morals and old-fashioned sense of magic. As a viewer, you’re constantly pulled into the fairy tale with swelling emotions and then giggle at the fact that you fell for the tricks a second later. Even so, there’s no tonal slingshot effect. It works just like Pixar movies at their best. It has classical storytelling for children and jokes for parents to ease them back into those old narrative rhythms. Even the sensationalistic villain plot with Nicole Kidman that should clash wildly with the simple English fairy tale somehow works, because King creates a world where anything can happen and often does.
Visually, the movie is remarkable with impressive CGI for Paddington and beautiful reality-bending flourishes from King throughout. The acting is unilaterally impressive, whether it be from the endless cameos, the vamping Kidman, the amusingly evil Capaldi, the charmingly peppy Hawkings, Whishaw’s perfectly cast smooth voice, or above all else Bonneville’s masterclass in British stuffiness.
The storytelling is smooth and sharp, while the emotional backbone is strong enough to make tears well, yet not ever step over the line into manipulative sentimentality. ‘Paddington’ is, in short, an ideal feature length film adaptation of an old children’s property. This is the best case scenario we all wish for whenever a childhood favorite is announced for blockbuster expansion, and a perfect family night out at the movies. And I say all of that as someone who despised Paddington Bear as a child. Just imagine how you’ll feel about the film if you actually like that silly old bear.