Elegant and hilarious 'Paddington' is a nice reminder that family movies need not pander to their audiences
Director: Paul King
Screenplay: Paul King and Hamish McColl, based on the character created by Michael Bond
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Walters and Peter Capaldi
Rated PG / 1 hour, 35 minutes
(out of four)
Over the last decade and a half, the legitimacy of animation as a form to be taken seriously has become a commonly accepted idea among American audiences. The rise of Pixar, coupled with niche studios like Laika and Aardman and the enhanced stateside popularity of Studio Ghibli, has made that fact difficult to ignore. But the live-action "family movie" has been a different story, mainly because most live-action family movies I can recall over the last several years have done little, if anything, to merit much consideration.
But along comes a movie like Paddington that, if there were any justice, would revitalize the PG family movie for good. I certainly don't expect that to be the case, but one such movie as artful and charming as this one is good enough for now. And believe me, I'm as surprised as the next guy. I've been making fun of Paddington's existence for months. When Colin Firth departed the title role last summer, I assumed he was jumping off a sinking ship. Consider my pleasant surprise to discover what a rare exception this is to the standards we've come to expect lately. In fact, jumping back to my original point, it's much more along the lines of the sophistication and beauty of modern animated cinema than anything else.
The film - half of it, at least - fits snugly inside a peculiarly durable formula, the story of the family that adopts - usually by happenstance - a new member of the household. You might understandably think of modest examples like Beethoven, or any of a number of forgettable movies about new family pets. But Paddington is more akin to Edward Scissorhands and Elf, two similarly themed and structured movies about sweet, aloof outcasts taking up residence with All-American families. Fittingly, for an adaptation of a series of children's books, director/co-writer Paul King imbues his take on the material with a distinct storybook quality that draws instant comparison to the likes of Wes Anderson. The meticulously curated tableaus, the neat, orderly compositions - even the heist-like tenor of the jazzy, adventurously staged (if conventionally plotted) third act, which reminded me of similar scenes from Fantastic Mr. Fox. (Note of context: If you are reminding me of Fantastic Mr. Fox, you are filling my soul with unbridled joy. In that regard, I'm an easy mark.)
There's an elegant sequence in which a dollhouse - resting in an attic where Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is staying for the night, having been rescued from a night of vagrancy by the sweet-natured Mary Brown (the great Sally Hawkins) and her family - opens up to reveal each character in the house, one by one, room by room, the camera gracefully sliding from one to the next as we get to know each member of the family. There's the aforementioned Mary, in a constant struggle to communicate with her teenager daughter, and a constant battle with her husband to do the right thing with their new visitor. The daughter, Judy (Madeleine Harris), is in that awkward teenage phase, where she's mortified by everything her family does, and certainly wants nothing to do with the anthropomorphic bear her mother seemingly wants to adopt. The husband, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), is an insurance adjuster, and is fittingly risk-averse - and that means bringing an undomesticated bear into the family full-time is out of the question.
Then there's the youngest, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), whose boyish rowdiness is perpetually at odds with his father's strict sense of order, and who sees the possible addition of Paddington to the family as an endlessly exciting prospect. And finally there's the housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), the family's unsung hero, who has wit and wisdom to spare.
Setting Paddington apart even further is the fact that King displays such deft comic impulses - another virtue so often absent from family comedies. From the opening sequence - a newsreel-type recording of the explorer Montgomery Clyde traveling deep into the jungles of Peru and discovering highly intelligent bears - the film sets an absurdist tone, laying on a series of visual gags immaculately staged and timed by King and cinematographer Erik Wilson (Richard Ayoade's The Double, Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur). They also do impressive work choreographing some rather elaborate scenes of screwball comedy, including a hilarious chase scene and a Brazil-inspired setpiece inside a bureaucratic office building.
I've heard some mild complaints that Paddington's inherent loveliness makes up for a dumb story, but I disagree; I think the story strikes the perfect balance - part cartoony, part absurd, part twisted, part sweet. For a movie in which a talking bear can walk the streets of London without most people so much as batting an eyelash, what more delightful plot could there be than a sinister taxidermist (played by Nicole Kidman*) who's out to get him at all costs? Answer: Nothing is more delightful than that.
* I must mention that the villainous Millicent - blond bob haircut, leopard-print heels, Gestapo trenchcoat - has to be Kidman's sexiest performance in, oh, 15 years? She's dreadfully wicked and ... well, I'm not saying I was rooting for her, per se, but ... wait, is this thing on? OK, what I mean is, she should play villains more often.
The ability of a film like this to get so much so right - the visual artistry, the warmth that never crosses the line into saccharine nonsense, the deft tonal fluctuations between farcical, heartfelt and genuinely perilous - is something to treasure in an era when its ilk is all but extinct. For a fish-out-of-water story like Paddington, it's only too appropriate that it feels like such an outlier.