While American Sniper generated giant ticket sales and controversy last weekend, I opted instead to see an adaptation about a beloved bear from “darkest Peru” who tries so hard to get things right, but stumbles into trouble anyway. Paddington might not tackle weighty matters like war, but I still think that it adeptly conveys important lessons about manners and acceptance, with a large measure of humor and excitement mixed in.
Paddington stays lovingly true to the character developed by Michael Bond, while taking liberties with the larger plot. In Peru, British explorer Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) discovers a new species of bear that can communicate with humans and learn from them. He establishes a brief, but influential friendship with bears he names Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Patsuzo (Michael Gambon), who years later pass their knowledge—including a delicious marmalade recipe—on to their young nephew. When an earthquake disrupts their way of life in the jungle, Aunt Lucy sends the little bear stowed away in a ship headed for London, where Clyde promised they would always find a warm welcome. In London, however, the bear, who is eventually named Paddington (Ben Whishaw), struggles to find anyone to take him in. Eventually, the Brown family happens upon him and Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins) insists on taking him home. Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is intent on taking Paddington to the authorities, while the children, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), have mixed reactions and their relative, Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), spends a lot of time cleaning up Paddington’s messes. As the Browns try to help Paddington find Montgomery Clyde, he turns their lives a little upside down. Meanwhile, a taxidermist at the natural history museum, Millicent (Nicole Kidman), wants to secure the bear for her collection.
There is a lot to love about this movie. The film easily could have veered too far into sentimentality, but instead it makes a whimsical, lighthearted presentation of the characters. This vibe comes through via the gorgeous sets and art direction that show each of the Browns’ distinct personalities through the rooms of the Brown home that they most occupy. As Paddington writes a letter to Aunt Lucy, telling her about the family, a doll house opens up showing each of the Browns in their rooms, going about their individual activities. It’s a beautiful technique that could be overly-wrought, but I think it was more charming than anything.
In addition to its beautiful aesthetics, Paddington is full of scenes of the bear getting into mishaps. These moments are well-spaced and really, genuinely funny. When Paddington gets himself into real trouble, the action sequences were exciting and the stakes for Paddington and the Browns felt real. I was impressed by how engrossed I was by the entire movie.
Maybe the biggest weakness in an otherwise really wonderful film is that, as far as I can recall, everyone in the movie is white, with the exception of the bears and a band who appears at Paddington’s emotional moments, playing music that is coded as exotic, or from his home. Given the film’s message that all people are different and we should love them just the same, the lack of diversity shown in a major, and diverse, city really stands out.
The performances in Paddington are mostly very good. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville don’t have great chemistry together, but they bring a lot of depth and warmth to their individual characters. I was especially impressed by Bonneville, who managed to be both uptight and adventurous, without the oscillation feeling unnatural. Nicole Kidman was a standout for her weak performance as the villain. Among so many relatable characters, her character looked cartoonish.
For its whimsical design and fun sense of humor, I rate Paddington 4/5 stars.
Paddington was written by Hamish McColl and Paul King, who directed. The film is based on the character by Michael Bond. It runs 95 minutes and is rated PG for mild action and rude humor.
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