As I was watching the closing credits scroll by for Paul King's excellent screen adaptation of Michael Bond's Paddington, I looked down front and smiled as I watched a young mother dancing joyfully with her very young daughter to the film's closing music, a lovely tune co-written by Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani called "Shine."
This was the spirit of Paddington, a lovely and spirited film that far outshines what I'm fairly certain anyone would have been expected from what is often the post-awards season dumping ground of American cinema, January. To be sure, we had some idea that Paddington was something special when it picked up a couple of BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Academy Awards, nominations in the categories of Best British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. While the film's chances of a win in either category may seem slight, rest assured that Paddington once again proves that British filmmakers continue to make the best family films in cinema today and they manage to do so without excessive distraction and without talking down to children.
If you are unfamiliar with the Paddington books, which is incredibly difficult to imagine, they center around a friendly bear from deepest, darkest Peru who becomes relocated to London and finds himself in the Brown family. The first book, "A Bear Called Paddington," was published in 1958 and since then the series has been translated into over 30 languages across 70 titles and has sold over 30 million books.
This is only King's second film, after Bunny and the Bull, but it's clear quite early on that the self-acknowledged longtime Paddington has put much love and care into the film. The film kicks off with a retro styled newsclip featuring an explorer (voiced by Tim Downie) who has been sent by the Geographer's Guild to explore Peru and discovers a most rare kind of bear. The explorer becomes friends with the two bears, naming them Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), and teaches them the Queen's English and all sorts of inside knowledge of London including handing off an immense love for marmalade.
We fast forward many years and the film's namesake, voiced with wonder and innocence by Ben Whishaw, is now on the scene and living amongst the Peruvian jungles with his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo, who've raised him since the death of his own parents. These early scenes are delightfully whimsical and playful, though it isn't long before an earthquake strikes and the events that unfold lead to Paddington's being sent to London to find a home.
It is not coincidental that "A Bear Called Paddington" was published in 1958, a post-war time during which it was fresh in the memory of all Europeans of mass relocations of children from urban areas to the country and how taking someone in who needed help was expected. While our young bear arrives with these clear expectations, he arrives at, yes Paddington Station, to experience a colder, more self-absorbed London than he'd always been told existed. It isn't long at all before our bear encounters the Brown family including Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), and their two children, the always embarrassed Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) along with Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters).
The plan is that Paddington will be allowed to stay with the Brown family for just one night, then they will try to track down the explorer or Paddington will be turned over to proper authorities. Of course, nothing ever goes quite as planned. It should go without saying that Paddington's first night will be wrought with havoc, while the havoc will give way to his finding his way into the the hearts of each Brown family member and will have himself quite a bit of adventure along the way. The adventure comes courtesy of Nicole Kidman's Millicent, a Natural History Museum staffer with a penchant for taxidermy above and beyond the norm. She takes an interest in Paddington, and not a healthy one, and working alongside Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) sets out to add him to her collection.
Director Paul King has filled Paddington with intelligence and whimsy and wit far above the norm of what we've come to expect in most American family films. Paddington may have a few references likely to appeal more to adults than children, but it treats children respectfully and the film has its moments that will make you laugh and make you cry and, yes, make you get up at the end and maybe even dance with your child.
If you've been following this year's Oscar race, then you may very well know that a dramatic short film starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, The Phone Call, is nominated for an Oscar. It's an intense, emotional, and powerfully vulnerable film and it's hard not to have a deep appreciation for both performers as you watch them here be just as convincing in incredibly different roles.
Paddington weaves together a whimsical yet believable world, no small task given that we are dealing with a talking bear here. Framestore's animation is simply stellar, embodying our wonderful bear with a richness in personality and soulful eyes that will likely remind longtime fans of the bear exactly why they still have that stuffed bear in the attic. While King gives London that initial iciness, Paddington is truly a love song to the city with its embrace of those who are different, because everyone is different, and a fundamental idea that anyone can find a place to belong in London.
It is not very often that I find myself eagerly anticipating January films, but I was practically beside myself with joy at the thought of watching Paddington. I wasn't disappointed. Paddington is beautifully constructed, intelligently written, wondrously acted by its ensemble cast, and simply a joy to behold.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic