There has always been a part of me that wished Paddington Bear was real. Growing up on Michael Bond’s stories of a lovable orphan bear from Darkest Peru who makes his way to London to start anew and the delightful (and ahead of their time and subversively hilarious) BBC cartoons from the 1970s, I always thought that Paddington was a perfect character. He’s humble, caring, loyal, literal, literate, basically everything humans should strive to be except that he has no concept of how the world works. Even now as an adult on long train rides home part of me hopes to see a young, talking bear in a floppy hat with a tag around his neck saying “Please look after this bear” waiting on the platform. Just thinking about Paddington warms my heart. He’s a hopeful symbol that means a lot to me, so if anyone was going to be overly critical of the live action big screen adventures of one of the most beloved characters in kiddie lit, it would have been me.
I couldn’t be more overjoyed with how wonderfully Paul King’s Paddington has turned out. It’s so great that it restored my faith in humanity and special effects driven studio product for 89 minutes. It’s proof that not every great character needs to be ruined by studios looking to make the character hipper or somehow “retro cool.” Paddington works because it feels like a classic Muppet film. Not the cynical Nicholas Stoller entries of recent years, but those from the Jim Henson era. It’s a fish out of water tale (or bear in this case) where the jokes and gags aren’t laboured, the humans react accordingly, there’s just enough darkness to make the sappiness feel earned, and it has a huge beating heart for the characters and audience in equal measure. It’s a perfect family film and worthy of attention from audiences of all ages.
Raised by rare, intelligent talking bears in the jungle, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is forced to leave home following a devastating earthquake. He’s instructed by his aunt (who’s off to live in a home for old bears) to make his way to London to find the geographer who taught the bears how to speak like refined people. Stowing away in a rowboat and living off his beloved marmalade, Paddington arrives in the big city knowing no one and without a clue how to find a permanent home. He’s happened upon at a train station by a kindly woman named Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), her uptight, worrywart husband (Hugh Bonneville), and her two children (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris). The Browns take Paddington in temporarily (and reluctantly, since the naive bear is accident prone and takes things too literally) while they track down the person who can most likely give him the life and love he deserves. Not everyone wants to see Paddington succeed, though. Their neighbour across the lane (Peter Capaldi) is an obviously racist shut-in who worries about his quality of life with an immigrant in the neighbourhood, and a ruthless taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) with personal ties to Paddington’s family wants to see him stuffed and mounted in a museum.
Contrary to what many naysayers were thinking when the film’s first trailer was released (which is a scene that actually happens in the cartoon), Paddington maintains its uniquely British sensibility and silliness. Writer and director King – best known for the cult TV series The Mighty Boosh – updates the material so slightly that he lends the film a timeless quality. There aren’t extensive sequences of Paddington futzing around with iPhones or trying to work a microwave. The changes are all decidedly low key with King opting for a feel more closely in tune with the works of Wes Anderson or 1980s era Steven Spielberg. If Paddington couldn’t do something when the character was originally created, he’s not doing it here. King sets a firm set of boundaries that emphasizes wit and style over cloying pandering to a film sector that far too often cares more about marketing Happy Meals and potentially lucrative spin offs instead of focusing on telling decent stories with likable characters.
There’s a very delicate balance in place here. Every set piece dazzles not just in terms of spectacle and visual acumen, but the splendid work by the effects team at Framestore (who did Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy and worked on Gravity) and cinematographer Erik Wilson (The Double, 20,000 Days on Earth) are certainly worth noting. What dazzles the most is how well integrated into the story sillier moments like an ill fated raid on the nefarious, Rube Goldberg-meets-Dostoevsky-isn Geographer’s Guild, a sequence that’s almost a note-for-note remake of the Burj Khalifa climb from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with Dustbusters, and a bit with Paddington inadvertently capturing a pickpocket are integrated into the story without feeling superfluous. Every action in Paddington informs the storyline, not merely existing as eye candy. Everything has a place and a purpose, delivered with an impeccable sense of timing and grace.
There’s plenty to be said for the cast, starting with the perfectly cast Whishaw, who got his job after Firth backed out of the role in post-production insisting that he was too old for the part of a childlike bear. It was the right move on Firth’s part and it turns a great movie into a perfect one. There’s a likability to Paddington’s design (hand me down coat, hat from a surrogate father figure, expressive eyes, nice smile) that needs to be matched by someone capable of expressing a great amount of warmth. Paddington is broke, alone, and probably quite scared, but he’s happy, honest, and a chronic optimist in the face of sometimes certain peril. Whishaw fully embodies Paddington’s can-do spirit with a sense of vulnerability and kindness that’s hard to do when voicing a character that lives in a real world, but is digitally realized.
The human cast isn’t too shabby, either, especially Hawkins’ enthralling turn as a loving mother. Just like it seems that character holds her family together, she has impeccable chemistry with her co-stars, real and imaginary. And while Capaldi is a perfect casting choice for a grumpy coot intent on self-preservation, it’s wonderful to watch Bonneville and Kidman finally get a chance to let loose in egoless, note-perfect comedic turns. Both actors are positively revelling at getting opportunities to play foolish types, and their energy gives the film just a bit extra on top of an already splendid package.
All in all, Paddington might be the best Wes Anderson film that wasn’t made by the man himself. It’s that good, brimming with curiosity, adventure, and more belly laughs than I can remember having in quite some time. Sure, there’s plenty of subtext that one could read into here, but taking that out of the equation, the film remains a top notch piece of entertainment for viewers of any age. It’s January, but I can assure you that come December Paddington will be making my list of the best films of the year. It’s that good, and certainly exceptional enough to stop anyone who was mocking the film previously. I always hated when people tell me that I hate joy when I think a crowd pleasing movie is substandard. In the case of Paddington, someone not liking it might put those words closer than they have ever been to the tip of my tongue. But even then, overall at least they would have seen the film, at least. Don’t let Paddington pass you by. Give it a chance. It’s a major film.