Paddington stuffed with charm
Michael Bond’s Paddington books were not a part of my childhood, so I went into Paul King’s big screen adaptation of these beloved English children’s stories blissfully ignorant. I’m glad, as it afforded me the pleasure of being pleasantly surprised throughout. “Charming” and “delightful” are overused descriptors where films of this sort are concerned, lazily used to describe movies not nearly as winning as King’s. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to come up with more apt adjectives as this film had me smiling from the very first frame to the last, sending me out of the theater genuinely happy without feeling unduly manipulated.
For fellow newcomers such as I, the first of Bond’s books appeared in 1958, recounting the adventures of a Peruvian bear who’s put on a transport to England after a tragedy occurs, only to end up at Paddington station from where he gets his name after being adopted by the Brown family. This set up is dispensed with quickly and with great imagination as our first glimpse of the erstwhile ursine’s family is in an old black-and-white travelogue film made by the explorer who first found Paddington’s aunt and uncle. He instills in them a love for all things English and a taste for orange marmalade that’s so profound in our hero that a 12-step program to wean him from it might be called for.
As you might imagine, it’s hard for a talking, albeit polite, young bear to fit into modern England, especially when Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), a glass-is-always-half-empty insurance adjustor, constantly laments about the inherent dangers of just having him around. But if Paddington has nothing else, it’s a vast reserve of perseverance (could this be a by-product of his marmalade-heavy diet?) and stops at nothing to acclimate to his new surroundings despite numerous mishaps, among them flooding the Brown’s upstairs loo and sailing their bathtub down a two-story circular staircase; tracking down a pickpocket with the help of a skateboard, speeding bus, dog leash and umbrella; and having an encounter with a roll of scotch tape that leads to an unlikely bit of salvation. Yes, there’s one disaster after another – one more imaginative than the next – yet Paddington comes through it all with aplomb, ultimately winning over Mr. Brown and helping him reconnect with his lovely wife (Sally Hawkins) and two children (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) in the process.
King packs the film with one visual delight after another, chief among them Paddington himself. Digital creations like the title character have become commonplace in this digital age of filmmaking, and though the illusion here is not so convincing that we think a four-foot bear is traipsing the streets of London, the interaction between the cast and this furry stranger in a strange land is so well-done we never for a moment question the premise of the story. Told in a matter-of-fact manner, the premise comes off as natural – much in the vein of Chris Noonan’s Babe, which this film has more than a passing resemblance to – told in a confident, whimsical manner that’s so beguiling that we willingly push any narrative objections we might have to the wayside. (Even a silly subplot involving Nicole Kidman as a vicious taxidermist out to stuff our hero.) The animation used to bring Paddington to life is flawless, yet it’s the calm, ingratiating voice work of actor Ben Whishaw that gives him soul, providing him with an unassuming personality that makes the bear seem more than just a piece of visual trickery.
What lies at the core of Paddington’s success is that King never allows any of the scenes to take on a cloying tone, successfully resisting any temptation to lay on the sentiment too thick. No, the story is told in a straightforward, commonplace manner, never pandering to the audience or making the fatal mistake of being too fey in its delivery. This is just the simple story of a family who, drifting apart, is brought back together by a kindly bear. That the result is a hefty marmalade bill is of little consequence. It’s the magic that Paddington brings to the Browns and that this film brings to us, that does.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.