Paddington is absolutely, positively delightful. This big-screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s* classic, adorable children’s-book character — an exceedingly polite, klutzy, talking bear from “darkest Peru” — takes what could have been an easy cash-grab and turns it into a generous, fun, ingenious little comedy. It’s the kind of movie that turns critics like me into advertising copywriters: Go see it! Your kids will love it! Fun for adults and children alike! Et cetera!
I was never well-versed in the Paddington Bear stories, but the outline of the film appears to stick to Bond’s original setup, silly and sad in equal measure. After his habitat is destroyed, our young bear-hero travels from Peru to London, with a suitcase filled with nothing but marmalade, on the advice of his Aunt Lucy, who assures him that the British have a long tradition of taking care of children displaced by war (a reference to both the European émigrés who came to England during the war, as well as the British children who became refugees during the Blitz — which was reportedly Bond’s own inspiration for Paddington).
In London, he’s temporarily taken in by the Brown family, who are at first divided over what to do with this well-behaved but horrifically clumsy creature. Dad Henry (Hugh Bonneville), a careful insurance analyst who knows the exact amount of risk involved in everything (“34 percent of pre-breakfast accidents involve bannisters!” he yells at his son as the boy slides down the stairs), is skeptical. However, the always colorfully clad mom Mary (the enchanting Sally Hawkins), a children’s illustrator, loves the idea of having a cute talking bear around. The kids are torn, too: Judy (Madeline Harris) is an easily embarrassed teen and doesn’t want anything to do with the stupid talking bear, while younger Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is a budding inventor and wannabe-astronaut and wants a playmate.
Looking to find a permanent home for Paddington, the Browns attempt to locate an explorer who had discovered Paddington’s habitat decades ago (and from whom his red hat and love of marmalade comes from). Little do they know, a cruel taxidermist (played by Nicole Kidman, having the time of her life, and sporting an unusually fetching blonde bob) has also become fascinated by this bear, and wants him for her … [cue ominous music] … collection. The plot is all predictable, broad-strokes stuff — I mean, it’s basically Mary Poppins meets E.T. meets 101 Dalmatians, but with a talking bear — but the inspired comic setpieces set the movie apart. The bear has a penchant for causing any number of rolling, Rube Goldberg–esque calamities, often involving everyday objects (handi-vacs, toilets, skateboards, TV antennas, etc.), and the film’s freewheeling slapstick spirit is fairly irresistible. This kind of elaborate physical humor can be tough to pull off; the graveyards are full of children’s movies that drowned in their own shrill ornamentation. But director Paul King constructs his scenes with expert timing and precision: He deftly dribbles little bits of information about what’s going where, efficiently establishing the right spatial dynamics, then lets us anticipate the catastrophe to come. It all looks effortless, but it’s not. It’s also funny as hell.
Meanwhile, the film’s portrait of London is perched halfway between the modern and the fablelike, a place of huge crowds, imposing buildings, and portentous skies. (Early on, we briefly see the city in a snow globe, and the film seems to have bought into that aesthetic.) It all fits beautifully together. Many adaptations of children’s stories nowadays try too hard to contemporize themselves or to add hefty doses of realism — all in an (oft-misguided) effort to find some edge. But from its black-and-white newsreel opening to its world of dollhouses that transform into real houses, and its color-coded everyday objects that become marvelous sources of both chaos and invention, Paddington is decidedly, proudly unhip. It’s a lovely, endearing chocolate-box of a movie.
* The piece originally inaccurately said the creator of the Paddington series was Michael Brown, not Michael Bond.