Thanks to its playfully idiosyncratic, yet thoughtful nature, Paddington maintains the innocence and charm of the Paddington character for a new generation.
Paddington takes us back in time to the jungles of Peru, where a British explorer encounters members of a rare bear species - one capable of learning human speech and quite fond of marmalade - whom the explorer invites to visit London, whenever they like. Many years later, we meet a young member of the bear species (voiced by Ben Whishaw) who's living with his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), when an earthquake destroys their home and results in the young bear setting out to London, in search of a new home.
The young bear, not too long after making his way to Britain, is given a human name (Paddington, after Paddington Station) and taken in by eccentric Brown family, despite the reservations of the father (Hugh Bonneville). The Browns then help Paddington to track down the explorer his relatives met, unaware that a museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) has learned of Paddington's existence - and (for her own personal reasons) is determined to add him to her museum's collection.
Paddington represents an attempt to take the beloved Paddington Bear character - as was created by author Michael Bond in the 1950s - and bring his world to life on the big screen, in a manner that will resonate with moviegoers in the 21st century... and in that regard, it's a success. Thanks to its playfully idiosyncratic, yet thoughtful nature, Paddington maintains the innocence and charm of the Paddington character for a new generation.
Written and directed by Paul King (Bunny and the Bull), whose screenplay received an uncredited polish by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (she received a general thank-you in the credits), Paddington creates a universe for the title character to exist in that has just the right mix of wit and innocence to appeal to both children and adults alike (for different reasons, of course). The film's plot ultimately charts a predictable course, yet it's also very much cohesive and clean from the perspective of character and thematic development; and the delightful journey more than makes up the difference.
Along the way, Paddington even manages to examine issues concerning xenophobia and tolerance in a way that will not only mean something to children, but lets King present his lessons in a way that's comparatively subtle, sincere, and organic for a kids' movie (read: it doesn't feel preachy). This subtext is strengthened by the framing device of calypso songs, performed in the film on the streets of London by D Lime (the film's Greek chorus, so to speak), as well as the WWII references that've always been part of Bond's creation.
Paddington is also exceptionally (and surprisingly) well-shot and cleverly structured, from a visual perspective. The cinematography by Erik Wilson (Submarine, The Double) is playful and makes fun use of an eclectic combination of camera angles. As a whole the film is quite sophisticated in its technical construction, be it in terms of how it varies the brightness of the color palette (to reflect changes in mood) or the movie's Wes Anderson-esque use of sight gags and quirky imagery. Even the slapstick comedy sequences in Paddington are quite well-staged and executed, be that sort of comical mayhem to your liking or not.
Paddington's namesake isn't the most convincing CGI character to ever appear on the big screen, but he's certainly one of the most likable and endearing. Colin Firth was the original choice of voice actor for the Paddington character in this feature, but Ben Whishaw's (Cloud Atlas, Skyfall) gentle and boyish vocals better fit the Peruvian bear. The character's very likable personality - his relentless politeness and endearing attempts to be more refined - shines through, thanks to the combination of Whishaw's voice work and the expressive mannerisms given to him by the film's many digital effects artists and animators.
The Brown family - played by Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), and youngsters Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin - is equally charming; and though Bonneville has the strongest arc, his costars have distinct personalities and do serve as more than just plot devices in the film's story. Acclaimed character actors such as Julie Walters (Harry Potter), Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), and Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas) help round out the cast to bring entertainingly cartoony (yet memorable) characters to life - as does Nicole Kidman as the villain, a character who even has a proper motivation for doing what she does.
Paddington, on the whole, is not just a warm-hearted and well-crafted treat that the whole family can enjoy and appreciate, it might well go down as one of the better films released in U.S. theaters this year.
The movie was originally set to debut state-side on Christmas Day 2014, but its January launch means it's now in less danger of being over-shadowed by bigger, more heavily-marketed, releases. And by far, it's easily the best option for kids and adults to see in theaters this month, outside of the current awards season contenders.
Paddington is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 95 minutes long and is Rated PG for mild action and rude humor.