Review: ‘Paddington’

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Paddington is officially the best film of 2015 so far. There, I said it. You may not be surprised: in the cinematic doldrums of January and February, this kid-friendly but everyone-pleasing romp somehow acquired a 100% top critics score on review amalgamation site Rotten Tomatoes, an almost unheard of feat.

Well, prepare yourself ’cause here comes another adoring review.

With jar of marmalade in hand, the gentle and sweet Paddington, a young bear from “Darkest Peru,” will steal your heart and make you question why every children’s film can’t be this witty. I suppose the easy answer is that the film—based on a well-loved book series—is distinctly British. That is, it is about as droll, pun-filled, and antithetical to kinetic Hollywood cinema as one could get these days. Quite simply, Paddington and his floppy red hat are a treat.

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Rarely have I cried genuine tears of sadness within the first five minutes of a film. Rarer still? Doing so in an audience whose median age is between 5 and 8.

Paddington quickly establishes itself as a film with a huge heart, opening with black-and-white footage of an expedition to “darkest Peru.” There, an explorer encounters two bears; rather than eat him, the duo take immense interest in his supplies. The explorer becomes fast friends with the bears, naming the female after his mother, Lucy, and the male after “a boxer I met at a bar once”—yes, with his rather effeminate air this line was read with amusing romantic possibility—Pastuzo. Most importantly the explorer leaves the bears with a love of orange marmalade and the promise that they will be greeted warmly should they ever come to London.

Fast forward forty years and we meet the young bear soon to be named Paddington (Ben Whishaw, as adorable in voice as he is in person) as he makes an excited announcement: “It’s marmalade season!” Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) have aged, but they still recall their time with the explorer fondly—and they’ve passed their jam cravings on to their nephew. The in-more-ways-than-one animated threesome get going, harvesting oranges, crushing them, and jarring the delicious delicacy. Their frivolity—the time they spend together truly is rendered as special and especially meaningful thanks to the terrific voice acting—is cut short by a horrible earthquake, though, and after tragedy falls, my tears flowed.

Not for long though: Paddington is quickly whisked off to London, hoping to make good on the explorer’s welcoming promise. He gets caught up in the busy foot traffic at Paddington Station where he encounters the Brown family. “Stranger danger,” says father Henry (Hugh Bonneville of Downtown Abbey fame, and just a mite sillier here) as they pass by; Paddington tips his hat to them, the first of many scenarios in which his ursine nature seems not to bother any of the humans milling about. Mother Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins, dithering and hilarious) is intrigued though, and offers to help the young bear (whom she names Paddington) find a home with the explorer.

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The family takes him home and, in the set pieces that follow, go through some of the typical children’s adventure progressions: solving the mystery of the explorer’s identity, Paddington winning and then losing the trust of his compatriots, and the introduction of a villain, embodied here by Millicent (Nicole Kidman, giving an equal parts uncomfortably stiff and convincingly sadistic performance), the taxidermist at London’s natural history museum. She wants Paddington as part of her collection; in fact, she’s been waiting a long time to get her hands on his hide (two guesses who she’s related to).

Though the comic set pieces threaten to become somewhat standard, too, often involving Paddington’s unfortunate inclusion in some sort of out-on-control action-adventure set-up, there is a lightness of touch pervading every moment of the film’s quick runtime. The humor is laugh-out-loud funny, pointed and witty, with a genius use of puns and sight gags (my favorite: “In 100 yards, bear left.”). And thankfully the action is never long-winded. Instead, Paddington slides into and out of situations quickly, always evading damage and managing to save the day. His battles are internal—how will I find a family? where will I live? how will I negotiate my difference (of species) in modern-day London?—rather than external, unless, of course, you take his fate at the hands of Millicent seriously.

Her inclusion in the narrative seems only an attempt at injecting star power and a typical kid’s movie “bad guy,” though Kidman’s presence is not unwanted. She is funny and seems to be having fun. In fact, I found myself thinking that her work here most resembles her flirtatious and silly opening scenes in Moulin Rouge. Basically, like every other piece of the film, her threats only go so far before a humorous interlude or authentically moving moment intercedes. And that’s just the way it should be.

While the narrative is winning, it wouldn’t be nearly as charming without the stellar production design and creative direction on display. The Brown’s home is a colorful series of meticulously crafted rooms, at once livable and stylized; it is represented several times as an unfolding dollhouse, a trope which poignantly conveys the various divides between members of the family (daughter is embarrassed by mother, son is as estranged from father as a ten year old can be, etc…) and adds a touch of storybook whimsy. Director Paul King seems unafraid of making big stylistic choices, too. In two particularly meaningful visual flourishes, the tree painted along the wall of the Brown’s spiral staircase loses and regains its cherry blossoms as the narrative mood progresses, and the London cityscape is given a map-like overlay as Paddington travels from house to house in search of the explorer, and a place to live.

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In the end, Paddington has remarkably little interest in messing with typical youth-oriented tropes. The kinetic sequences are mercifully spare, and the emotional honesty is found refreshingly at the forefront. Paddington is intelligent but clumsy, sweet but not cloying, and his relationships with each member of the Brown family are written genuinely and realistically. He “teaches” mother, father, and children a thing or two, but save for a few treacly lines of dialogue from grandmother figure Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters)—”You needed that bear as much as he needed you,” she tells Henry—the lessons never hit the viewer over the head.

Instead, the resolution of the film, expected and welcome, seems tailor-made to fit the story at hand. Yes, Paddington’s journey is about finding family in a place far from your own home and adapting to the situations life throws your way. But perhaps more accurately, it’s simply about Paddington, in all his winning, wholly likable glory. He’s a stellar film protagonist, a delightful chap full of wonder and an easy-going nature; he deserves all the happiness in the world, and that’s just what he gets.

Paddington may be a movie for kids, but I ask you this: who wouldn’t want to spend time with the little bear from “Darkest Peru?”

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