Starring: Ben Whishaw (Skyfall), Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men), Sally Hawkins (Godzilla), Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut), Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), Julie Walters (Harry Potter), Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz)
Writer/Director: Paul King (Bunny and the Bull)
Runtime: 1 hour 35 minutes
Release Date: 28 November (UK), 16 January (US)
Films made for children can be a wonderful thing that fill their burgeoning imaginations with fantastic ideas that appeal to their sense of wonder and irreverent lack of logic. However, they can also be pandering nonsense made by blind corporate types who take kids for granted, treating them like idiots and feeding them obnoxious movies disguised by bright colours and tired humour. This is especially depressing when they take a beloved property and dumb it down for a “modern audience”; see most adaptations of Dr. Seuss books for a good example of that. Paddington Bear has been a fixture in British culture since the 1950s, and it would have been easy to treat the beloved character in a similar fashion. However, I’m happy to report that Paddington, whilst certainly not without its fault, is a charming and delightful film that respects the source material and appeals to all ages.
Much like any book aimed at children, Paddington tells an incredibly simplistic and well-worn story but does so with a lot of imagination and heart. The plot is extremely predictable and so full of clichés that it ticks almost every single box on the definitive list of clichés, but it manages to get away with it because everything else is handled with so much care and integrity. The film respects everything about the original Michael Bond stories, no matter how bizarre. They could have easily trimmed out the more out-there concepts or treated them with sardonic disdain, but the filmmakers embrace the absurdity and the film is far better for it. Though its old-fashioned and very British sense of humour may be lost on an American audience, that Britishness is an important part of the books and it’s been kept relatively intact. Instead of trying to appeal to a “modern audience” by pointlessly updating it with pop culture references or throwing pop songs on the soundtrack, it honours what it is supposed to be: a Paddington Bear film. That kind of honesty is what really makes Paddington so enjoyable, and it’s something that should really be taken note of. Could a more inventive plot with less reliance on tropes have helped? Possibly. Does its reliance on slapstick and farcical humour wear thin at points? Sometimes. Are the film’s messages and themes of acceptance and family a little too saccharine? At points, yes. But just as Paddington Bear is defined by his own unbridled sense of optimism and kindness, that simplicity and sweetness is what defines these stories and Paddington captures that near perfectly.
But any film with a basic narrative can be made wonderful by adorning it with a colourful cast of characters, and those found in Paddington are very archetypical but filled with so much enthusiasm and humour that you grow to love them by the end. Paddington himself is voiced wonderfully by Ben Whishaw, inhabiting the naïve and clumsy but well-meaning bear of the books to a T; from his first few minutes of screen time, it’s hard not to like and even feel sorry for him. Hugh Bonneville is well cast as the crotchety but caring Mr Brown, taking could be (and is at points) a very cookie-cutter and predictable character and delivers a very sincere and amusing performance; similar compliments can be made to Sally Hawkins’ Mrs Brown and Julie Walters’ Mrs Bird. Nicole Kidman looks like she’s having a ball playing the cartoonishly sinister villain Millicent Crane, who often seems a little OTT even for this film but is still given enough humanity and even a somewhat understandable back story; it’s little touches like that that make the film that much better. Peter Capaldi and Jim Broadbent’s roles are small but crucial, supplying some great humour during their brief appearances, and the rest of the film is full of recognisable faces from the British film and television industry. The only characters I feel get short shrift are the younger Browns, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris), who are amusing but could have been given a bit more focus. Otherwise, much like the story, the cast of Paddington may be given familiar characters to play, but each one is just earnest enough to feel human.
What’s probably been keeping Paddington Bear away from the silver screen for a while is technology, but the wait has been worth it. Paddington himself has been wonderfully animated; his expressions and movements give him a distinctive character without making him look like anything other than a bear. Too many times has this effect produced a cartoony and unbelievable effect (see Scooby-Doo or Alvin and the Chipmunks), but here it’s seamless and even award worthy. But it’s not just the effects that impress, because the rest of the visuals are very distinct too. The film captures London in a very candid but exaggerated way, not too dissimilar to its depiction in Mary Poppins, and that approach is very much appreciated. Sometimes the visuals can be a bit much, especially when it ventures into overly stylistic, Wes Anderson-esque territory, but your mileage may vary.
Paddington may well be the biggest surprise of 2014, and a prime example of how to adapt material aimed at young children right. It’s a funny, sweet and heartfelt little adventure, completely unashamed of its childish roots and embraces what makes the original stories so timeless. It’s certainly not anything game changing and the story could have used perhaps more unique elements and less farce, but you could equally argue that it wouldn’t be the same movie without those elements. If you’ve got a kid or are a big kid yourself, I can heartily recommend Paddington. Much like the bear’s coveted marmalade, it may be sickeningly sweet but that doesn’t stop it from being a treat.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10