Remember some of those inane children’s cartoons or movies from your childhood that would probably qualify as a form of cruel and unusual punishment if you were forced to re-watch them now? Nobody is ever going to remake something like Cow and Chicken or Johnny Bravo (choice gems from this reviewer’s own scarred childhood), but Paddington Bear is another story entirely. The first movie adaptation of one of humanity’s most beloved bears retains that quality of the original book series which allows for fond reminiscence rather than dawning horror as one grows older, but also packs in a few layers that reward the adult viewer for probing just that tiny bit deeper.
If you weren’t at least vaguely aware of the existence of a cute anthropomorphic bear that shows up at London’s Paddington Station in search of a good home, it doesn’t really matter anyway, since Paddington serves as a sort of origin story for its eponymous character. Paddington Bear (voiced by Whishaw) makes the journey to London after a disaster flattens his forest home in darkest Peru, whereupon he’s taken in by the kindly Mrs. Brown (Hawkins) and the risk-averse Mr. Brown (Bonneville). Various hijinks with Paddington’s new adoptive family then ensue, though a creepy taxidermist (Kidman) threatens to derail Paddington’s newfound happiness. The storyline’s cheerily conventional as far as it goes, and longtime Paddington fans will find that any changes made by the filmmakers are cosmetic rather than aesthetic.
Where Paddington truly shines, though, is in its beautiful and dynamic set pieces, including one where the entire Brown household is viewed from a dollhouse perspective and another where a miniature train set segues into a train from antiquarian Mr. Gruber’s (Broadbent) memory. Apart from Paddington himself, who still looks rather CG-ed, it can be difficult to distinguish between what is special effects wizardry and what is being filmed live-action. The scenes of Paddington’s various mishaps are so wonderfully imbued with a sense of movement that seamlessly blends the CG and live-action elements together, the effects of which are kinetic, cohesive sequences that just roll from one frame to the next.
The cast is no slouch either. Whishaw does an admirable job of voicing the urbane yet child-like Paddington, considering that he was only brought on as a last-minute replacement for Colin Firth. Human beans Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are delightful as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, though the child actress who plays their daughter is slightly unnatural. Nicole Kidman makes a return to playing a frosty villainess following The Golden Compass, but her performance, while adequate, seems to suggest that she didn’t quite enjoy her role as much as some of the other cast members. Whenever Kidman’s Millicent appears onscreen, one gets the feeling that the character could have been so much more, for she just pales in comparison to the kooky characters that populate the rest of the film.
Few family films fail to incorporate some form of moral into their narratives (the notable exceptions are the inane sort mentioned earlier on), but Paddington’s can almost be said to be political. Amid the capers and the cast’s amusing performances, there is a detectable appeal for a more inclusive and welcoming society by casting Paddington as an immigrant figure who penetrates the bastion of British imperialism and teaches those snooty Brits a thing or two. “Everyone’s different in London,” opines one of the characters, “so anyone can fit in.” When even a quintessentially British icon like Paddington Bear starts echoing a message of equality and discrediting the old white man’s burden, that really gives one some food for thought.
For those who prefer to give their brains a break at the movie theatre, fret not. Even without a consideration of its post-colonial tendencies, Paddington is still a delightful movie outing for the whole family. If you’re hesitating on account of a deep suspicion of talking bears, give it a go nonetheless. The chances are you’ll be won over just like all the human characters in the film.
Summary: A solid piece of entertainment for the kids that’s not without a few snags, but we’ll bump it up half a star for making the grown-ups think as well.
RATING: 4 out of 5 stars