There is a certain trepidation that accompanies any screening of a film released in January. This is the graveyard of films that failed to meet studio expectations, but that for some reason or another, are due a theatrical release. There is even more trepidation when the film is one aimed at children. How bad, one asks oneself, does a kiddie film have to be that it is withheld from release during the lucrative holiday season? And so it was with enormous relief that PADDINGTON subverted all expectations to prove itself a film that is charming, beautifully acted, and smartly written.
Based on the series of beloved children’s books by Michal Bond, who makes a cameo as the kind man, it recounts the sometimes harrowing story of how Paddington arrived in London, his being taken in, and named after a train station, by the Brown family, and why he is so partial to marmalade. There are some liberties taken. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) is the more fun parent, while Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is a risk analyst who can quote the statistics for any disaster, but the spirit of innocence and absurdity are in full force, and as unswerving as Paddington’s excellent manners.
Paddington is all CGI with the evocative voice of Ben Whishaw, but rendered with such sincerity and sweet eyes that he is real in every salient sense of the word. His misadventures are ever of the honest misunderstanding variety, hence flooding the bathroom and finding a dog to take on an escalator when he misunderstands a posters injunction. It’s his unflagging attempts to fit in and follow directions that form much of the sly humor in the film, pointing up the sorts of things we take for granted here outside of Darkest Peru.
When you cast the best actors, and give them well-written script, magic happens. Hawkins and Bonneville as polar opposites who are also madly in love are endearing as they grapple with the many definitions of responsible parenthood. Julie Walters as their eccentric relative/housekeeper Mrs. Bird, is prickly, but goes light on the eccentricity, adding just enough to make her character odd, not off-putting. Jim Broadbent, on the other hand, as the soft-spoken refugee owner of an antique shop is also eccentric, but the quiet type who amuses himself and his guests by using a toy train to deliver tea and cakes, with a veritable twinkle in his eye. Nicole Kidman, whose shoes get their own credit line, goes deliciously goggle-eyed as the villain of the piece who dreams of professional immortality by rendering Paddington into an immortal example of taxidermy. When she caresses her toolkit of sharp and shiny knives, there is nothing to do for us but surrender to the frisson of terror. (Small spoiler, because I’d want to know this and it doesn’t affect the plot line – the monkey will be fine.) And so will the two Brown children, Jonathan and Judy (Samuel Joslin, Madeleine Harris), the one a daredevil with an overprotective father, the other who is reworking embarrassment into an art form in reaction to her effusive mother. Each character and each element complement each other, raising the emotional stakes through misunderstandings and reconciliations. The gentle humor enhances, rather than detracts, from those stakes, and keeps us on the edge of our seats every bit as much as the fast-moving plot.
Visually, the film is as adventurous as the British explorer who first made contact with Paddington’s family in Darkest Peru, as bright as Mrs. Brown’s vivid take on home décor, and as lively as the plot that compels more than a few gasps at its audacious take on close calls. There flourishes of irresistible whimsy throughout, including thought clouds blossomding forth from a character’s head only to morph into a flashback, and a Victorian computer is effulgent with pneumatic tubes and fussy brass fittings.
Most of all, PADDINGTON has a lot of heart going for it even as its ursine hero puts a foot in a teacup, finds a novel use for a toothbrush, or tangles unsuccessfully with cellophane tape. Even when using his trademark hard stare to shame someone after they have used bad manners, it is impossible not to melt. He is so brimming with good cheer and even better intentions that water damage seems a small price to pay. And, yes, there is that wonderful message about the definitions of family and of home, but tucked neatly into a film that has such gentle and genuine humor. Plus, marmalade sandwiches, and the pigeons who love them, have never been more appealing.
I’m still wondering about the release date, but never mind. The tinsel at the end of the film works any time of year.