The trailers that The Weinstein Company released for “Paddington” were noisy and slapstick-heavy, making this family adventure, based on the iconic children’s book character, appear to be dreadful. They also decided to push the US opening date back from Christmas Day to the middle of January, normally a move made when a studio realizes that their film is dreadful.
But then I started noticing something amazing: glowing reviews for “Paddington” began to pop-up everywhere online, from both the US and the UK. And then the film received two BAFTA nominations (the British equivalent of The Oscars), including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. All of them made me begin to wonder – “Can it really be that good?” Well, to my pleasant surprise, “Paddington” is that good, indeed.
Paul King, a British indie writer and TV director who never helmed a “commercial” film before, deserves much of the credit. I’m sure offers for new projects are already pouring in for King, whose unique and magical vision shines throughout “Paddington”. Numerous imaginative scenes involving such things as a life-size doll house of the Brown home that comes to life, toys of all shapes and sizes and an recurring calypso band supply a “live” soundtrack could easily have come from the minds of Wes Anderson or Tim Burton, but King makes every bold element on display his own.
The opening scenes take us deep in the jungles of Peru, where we are supplied, via newsreel footage, with Paddington Bear’s backstory: A British explorer discovered the rare domesticated bear species and told the bears he encountered they would be welcome as friends if they ever visited England. Following a Disney-esque event, Paddington’s aunt sends the young bear (voiced by “Skyfall”‘s Ben Whishaw) off alone to London, to find a new family, complete with that famous “Please take care of this bear” tag.
The Brown family notices the bear at the Paddington train station (that’s how he gets his name) and decides to take him in for the night. Mr. Brown (played by “Downton Abbey”‘s Hugh Bonneville) wants Paddington to immediately be taken to the authorities, while Mrs. Brown (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) thinks their new visitor might benefit their two children and add some much-needed life to their home.
Similar to the animated character of Captain DuBois in “Madagascar 3”, Nicole Kidman plays an evil taxidermist named Millicent who learns that Paddington is in London and wants to make him the masterpiece of her extensive collection. Kidman, thankfully, plays it relatively straight-forward.
“Paddington” doesn’t rely much on big laughs in order to satisfy its audience. There are a few quality one-liners, such as a narrator stating “There are 107 ways Londoners say ‘It’s raining'”, as well as a well done running joke involving the marmalade sandwich Paddington keeps in his hat and some pigeons. There are a couple of slapstick scenes (which are amusing enough), but they are far from dominant in the story.
Many of Britain’s finest came-out to be a part of this adventure: “Doctor Who”, Peter Capaldi, plays the Browns’ neighbor, Jim Broadbent is an antique shop owner, Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton voice Paddington’s aunt and uncle, and Julie Walters plays the Browns’ wise housekeeper. They, along with the young actors who play the Brown children, all deliver at the right tone for this fable.
The CGI work of the Paddington character is excellent and Whishaw’s voice work is a perfect fit. Originally, Colin Firth was picked to be the voice of Paddington, but late in production, the casting switch was made. This turned out to be a great decision, as Firth’s distinctive voice would have been too identifiable and mature for the young, mischievous bear.
Overall, this is a crowning achievement, and one of the best adaptations of children’s story to a live-action film in recent memory. It has the perfect balance of humor, hijinks and heart.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Paddington” gets an A-. To paraphrase a line from one of Paddington’s distant relatives: “It’s smarter than the average bear movie”.
Running Time: 95 min.