Directed by: Paul King.
Written by: Paul King and Hamish McColl.
Starring: Ben Whishaw (Paddington), Hugh Bonneville (Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mary Brown), Nicole Kidman (Millicent), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Julie Walters (Mrs. Bird), Peter Capaldi (Mr. Curry), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Gruber), Imelda Staunton (Aunt Lucy), Michael Gambon (Uncle Pastuzo).
Paddington is one of the most pleasant surprises I have had at the movies in a long time. I had heard that the film was better than one would normally suspect for live action children’s movie with a CGI bear as its main character – but I still wasn’t prepared for utterly and completely charming the film would be. I took my three year old to see it – a little nervously, because while she loves going to movies (I think more for the popcorn that the movies themselves) – the one time it went wrong was the only other time I tried taking her to a live action movie – Muppets Most Wanted. But she sat there transfixed by the movie, loving every minute (except for the scary lady) – and yet I think I enjoyed the film even more than she did.
The movie opens year ago, in darkest Peru. We see an old movie of an explorer coming across a new species of bear – but instead of taking a sample back home to England; he befriends them instead – marveling at how quickly they pick up the English language. Flash forward and Paddington (wonderfully voiced by Ben Whishaw) is a young bear in Peru, living with his Aunt and Uncle – the two bears who met the explorer. An earthquake, and tragedy, strike – so Paddington is sent off across the ocean to find that explorer in England – who always told them that should they find themselves in London, the bears would be most welcome. Paddington gets there, and discovers that he is most decidedly not most welcome – as the people at a crowded train station ignore even the marvel of talking bear in a floppy red hat (he doesn’t have his blue trench coat yet – but he will soon). Only Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins, with the same ever sunny disposition she had in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go Lucky) seems to notice him at all – and immediately takes pity on him. They cannot just leave the poor bear along, can they – and so the Brown family decide to take Paddington home with them – but just for one night, the stern, joyless Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) assures everyone. If only it were that simple.
The film does have a plot to be sure – mostly involving Millicent (Nicole Kidman) – that mean lady my daughter didn’t like – who works at the natural history museum, even though she looks like a domamatrix. She, of course, wants to stuff Paddington and put him on display for all the world to see. The film is also a gentle allegory about immigration – appropriate because the Paddington books were inspired by war refugees in England during WWII (which the movie explicitly references). I’m not going to argue that it’s a complex look at immigration – but it’s still a touching one, and aimed at a level that children will understand.
But the movie is really at its best when it ignores all that and just focuses on the lovable bear and his antics. Paddington is an innocent – he doesn’t understand the world he has stepped into, and he gets himself in a lot of strange situations. There is some literal toilet humor, chase sequences; Hugh Bonneville is drag, lots of hilarious throwaway lines, and an overall good naturedness to the film that quite simply won me over. The film burrows generously from Wes Anderson at times – particularly in the construction of the Brown family house – but if you’re going steal from anyone when building a fantastical house, you may as well steal for the best.
I don’t know what I was expecting from Paddington – most likely something along the lines of the horrible Alvin and the Chipmunk or Smurf movies in recent years that combined live action and CGI in recreating beloved children’s shows for a new generation. But Paddington is way better than those movies – it is completely charming, very British, and very funny from start to finish. I loved this silly bear – and his movie.