Author Michael Bond introduced the world to Paddington in 1958. His ursine protagonist’s stories were simple, innocent tales of a clumsy character experiencing everyday occurrences such as riding the subway or going Christmas shopping. The inspiration for Bond’s Paddington partly fueled by images of children refugees aboard Kindertransports before the outset of WWII; the migrating bear’s origins are still acknowledged in director Paul King’s adaptation of Paddington from page to (bigger) screen. Make no mistake, this is a children’s film replete with bright colours, improbable physical comedy and a single instance of bathroom humour (thankfully left in the bathroom). Paddington manages to entertain with childlike energy while still having something of substance to say with regards to topics of immigration, refuge, acceptance and most of all, family.
The film opens with a playful black and white pastiche of turn of the century expeditionary footage. This particular expedition sees explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) setting forth into Darkest Peru. Once there he meets two bears who he later names Lucy and Pastuzo (Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon). After sharing trinkets and pieces of culture with his newfound friends he returns home, but not before leaving Lucy and Pastuzo with audio tapes (from which they learn to speak English) as well as a penchant for the greatest gift on Earth: marmalade.
Many years later, as the screen expands from its initial monochromatic 4:3 offering into widescreen colour, Lucy and Pastuzo are now Aunt and Uncle to a young, curious bear. After an earthquake destroys the home of the ursine trio the young bear is sent off to find a new home in London, a place that explorer Montgomery Clyde claimed would always hold ‘a warm welcome’. And so it is that the bear finds himself at Paddington station, and not long after that the Brown family finds him. After much hemming and hawing on the part of Brown patriarch Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is given a human name and brought into the family household.
Mr. Brown insists the stay be temporary and in the interim Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) vows to help Paddington find Montgomery Clyde and in turn, his real new home. His temporary household sees Paddington amidst brother and sister Johnathan and Judy (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris) and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). Predictably, things cannot be so simple as we are introduced to delightfully villainous Millicent (Nicole Kidman) who is intent on adding Paddington to her museum’s collection by way of involuntary taxidermy. It’s certainly a darker tale than Paddington visiting a theatre but Paul King keeps things enjoyably lighthearted; even amidst brief moments of genuine bitterness which keeps Paddington from delving into sickly sweet territory.
Aside from an instance of incorrectly used toothbrushes, Paddington’s many jokes fall under clever rather than gross-out. One scene in particular has Mrs. Brown describing a missing Paddington to a police officer on the other end of a call as being 3’4”, wearing a hat and is a bear. The officer exasperatedly exclaims that the description is, unfortunately, not much to go on. In between the witty lines are moments of physical comedy heightened by the fact that they’re often being perpetrated by a CG creation. Co-writer Hamish McColl whose resume includes Mr. Bean’s Holiday infuses Paddington’s slapstick situations with a naive innocence that makes Paddington seem adorable rather than dimwitted.
The visuals of the film itself are ripe with playfulness and meaning. Scenes such as Paddington stepping through a projected video of his old home or a panning through of the Brown household in diorama form embodies the film’s willingness to be playful and it does so winningly. The surreal visuals of Paddington’s world harken back to his page-bound origins. There are nods to his briefcase’s secret, marmalade housing compartments as well as his run ins with city pigeons and royal guards alike. There is a very obvious respect and adoration of the source material on display and Michael Bond himself offers up a toast to the proceedings in a fly-by cameo that’s easy to miss.
The titular Paddington, a computer generated bear, blends in seamlessly with the live action world he inhabits. In the capable hands of Oscar winning visual effects house Framestore, Paddington effortlessly makes the transition from forested Peru to concrete laden London. Paddington flies through the air with an umbrella, Millicent grapples through ceilings and an array of pneumatic tubes inside the Explorer’s Guild burst with papers and baguettes. The imaginative set design and the accompanying bright colours help ground Paddington in a world that’s just a bit more fantastical than our own, and in a world where an anthropomorphic talking bear is ignored on a crowded train platform, it sells its surreal London.
The cast surrounding Paddington are all clearly enjoying themselves. Peter Capaldi’s cranky Mr. Curry in particular, embraces the ‘bear-ophobic’ neighbour whose worried that the latest addition to the Brown household will bring about loud ‘jungle music’ in the late hours. Kidman’s Millicent could easily be compared to Cruella DeVille but that would be unfair. Millicent’s playful manipulations of several characters lends her a charm that Cruella never had and her desire to capture Paddington ties in well with the overall narrative. The Brown children escape the predictable archetype of precocious young children and instead come across as actual people with their own realistic hangups regarding their family lives. In fact every member of the Brown household has their own little arc of character growth, all but Mrs. Bird who, I suspect, has already gained wisdom in her years.
Paddington Bear has been a reliable source of good feelings for almost 60 years and Paul King and company have, quite successfully, translated those feelings to the big screen. Paddington is a lovingly made, clever, funny film; its themes of family, home and acceptance signal that it is prescient of current social issues but that prescience never belies what is at it’s core: a bright, beautiful film that doles out humour and heart in equal, furry parts.