Editor’s Notes: Paddington is currently out in wide theatrical release.
Paddington is the most British film I’ve seen since The King’s Speech five years ago. I don’t say that disparagingly, either. There is an air of grace and civility throughout and an attitude of ‘if this is what it is, we’ll just deal with it and not make a big deal about it’. That’s certainly at work when no one questions (except one of the children) that there is a walking, talking bear just going about London. That attitude is what makes the comedy, if not the entire film, work so well.
The wit, charm and utter good faith the main plot radiates keep the film in check, despite the silly subplot.
The story is that of Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw, who has recently taken over the role of Q in the James Bond series), a small, accident-prone bear from Darkest Peru who lives with his aunt and uncle (voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon) who learned English from an explorer who found them 40 years ago and lived with them for some time (introducing them to marmalade as well as British culture). After an earthquake destroys their home, Paddington’s aunt decides to move to the Old Bear’s Home and to send Paddington to London under the promise of the explorer that they’d be treated well if they ever went.
Enter the Browns: Henry (Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey), Mary (Sally Hawkins) and their kids Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). They see Paddington in a railway station, like an orphan from World War II (which was his Aunt Lucy’s idea, based on her knowledge of postwar events from the explorer). Mary takes pity on him and lets him stay the night with them, over the objections of Henry, a risk analyst whose job and overwhelming concern for his children’s safety has made him into the consummate worry wart.
This story, of Paddington introducing some chaos into an ordered household that in turn brings together the fractured, joyless family would have been the epitome of a charming, disarming family feature and while that is the main line of the film and a saving grace, writer/director Paul King decided (unwisely) to include a subplot involving the explorer’s daughter Millicent (Nicole Kidman), director of the Natural History Museum and amateur taxidermist who is determined to stuff Paddington for an exhibit dedicated to her late father, who is unrepresented in the museum due to his unwillingness to procure a specimen of the unique bear he located in Darkest Peru and therefore expelled from the Explorer’s Society. Aided by busybody neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi, the twelfth and current incarnation of The Doctor on Doctor Who), Millicent tries and fails to procure Paddington from the Brown’s home. While the sequence is disturbing for its home invasion quality, it is also rather hilarious because it gives Kidman the opportunity to spoof her ex-husband’s Mission Impossible wire routine. The trouble with this subplot is that her motivation is revealed very late in the film, which makes her seem more repellant than she would be (which still would have been considerably so anyway) and Kidman goes so far over the top, she laps herself. The most damning aspect of the subplot is that it is utterly forgettable, despite its dominance in the third act. This alone shows that it could have been completely avoided and nothing would have been sacrificed except some odd moments and time periods that take us away from the genuine and warm characters that we are growing to love.
Anchoring that main plot is Whishaw’s sparkling performance of Paddington. He gives the bear a sense of wonder and naiveté that generates warmth that spreads to the entire picture.
The wit, charm and utter good faith the main plot radiates keep the film in check, despite the silly subplot. Anchoring that main plot is Whishaw’s sparkling performance of Paddington. He gives the bear a sense of wonder and naiveté that generates warmth that spreads to the entire picture. Add to that the brilliant dry humor from Bonneville and the sweetness of Hawkins and the film keeps its spirit through the forced climactic showdown in the museum and allows you to forgive the film its missteps simply because of how good you feel because of the rest of the film.
Aiding these delightful performances is King’s sure-handed, sometimes beautiful, direction. The camera moves he plotted with cinematographer Erik Wilson keep the film moving along, his framing is at times inspired and his use of visual effect flourishes on the fringes and background of the frames is really wonderful. He makes you feel the spaces the characters are in and keeps the pace of most of the film steady and pleasant (until, again, the climax which just feels so out of place). He subverts the expectations of how we would have guessed the film should look and provides something fresh and original. He gives us in-jokes, like the wire routine and a scene with Capaldi inside an old red telephone box, an allusion to The Doctor’s old blue police call box. He creates inventive staging of scenes to draw out the comedy and sometimes the danger.
More kudos should go to the effects department for creating such a life-like rendering of Paddington himself and his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo. Digital effects have crossed the line of what Roger Ebert called the “uncanny valley” and have begun to create amazingly realistic creatures. Paddington is so well rendered and King’s direction of the actors so good that you can forget that Paddington isn’t really there. For all intents and purposes, he is there, speaking to the Browns as though he were a perfectly mannered English child.
There is definitely franchise potential in the film, but I hope they don’t give into it too quickly. A rush to concoct a forced story for a sequel would cheapen the genuine emotions generated from this film and wouldn’t ultimately work. But if they focus on the Browns and Paddington’s growing understanding of London and the world outside the jungle of Darkest Peru, a sequel and indeed a series would be most welcome.
Paddington is far from perfect, but it does manage to create characters that grow throughout the film and imbue affection. It’s a wonderful family film with little to no rude humor (which is, at the risk of sounding incredibly old, rare these days, not to mention refreshing) and a story simple enough for younger viewers to understand with depth that older kids and adults will find most rewarding.
Paddington is far from perfect, but it does manage to create characters that grow throughout the film and imbue affection. It’s a wonderful family film with little to no rude humor and a story simple enough for younger viewers to understand with depth that older kids and adults will find most rewarding.