★ ★ ★ ★
Paddington is perfect.
Families looking for a great movie that will entertain everyone, regardless of age, should flock to this utterly delightful, laugh-out-loud funny adventure featuring the marmalade-loving bear from the classic children’s books, who was first brought to life in 1958 by author Michael Bond. It’s difficult to imagine a better or more pleasing film for the Peruvian bear’s first big-screen outing: Director Paul King (Bunny and the Bull), who also wrote the witty script, has created a totally captivating, thrilling, and heartwarming tale that will likely be enjoyed by kids (and moms and dads and grandparents) for years to come. Everything, from the impeccable computer-generated imagery and pitch-perfect casting to the calypso-infused soundtrack and eye-catching set design, are on point.
We first meet Paddington in “Darkest Peru,” where he lives with his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by, respectively, Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon). The two bears were taught English years before by a British explorer, who also promised them a warm place to stay if they should ever visit London. When an earthquake destroys their treetop dwelling and much of their beloved jungle, Paddington is shipped off to London as a stowaway on a freighter to find a better life. He expects to be welcomed with open arms and loving hearts when he arrives at London’s Paddington train station with a sign around his neck that reads, “Please take care of this bear.” Author Bond recently told the New York Times that the sign came from his memories of seeing evacuated children at rail stations during World War II. “They all had labels around their necks and were holding on to their treasured possessions,” he said. “It was very sad, and Paddington is also a refugee in that way.”
Unfortunately, Paddington is completely ignored by the bustling crowd until late at night, when the Brown family embark from a train. The mom (the always excellent Sally Hawkins) takes pity on him and convinces her risk-averse hubby (Hugh Bonneville) and kids to let him stay with them overnight until they can find him proper lodging. But while Paddington is perfectly polite, he is unaccustomed to modern conveniences such as bathtubs and toilets, which leads to one of the movie’s funniest scenes as he accidentally floods an upstairs bathroom and sails down the circular staircase in a speedy tub. Yet those misadventures are minor compared to the danger represented by coldhearted taxidermist Millicent, played with wicked delight by Nicole Kidman, who wants to stuff Paddington and add him to her collection. Her Cruella de Vil-like character, while menacing in a cartoonish way, does pose a real threat to the beloved bear’s future and may frighten the youngest of viewers. It’s obvious the leather-clad, stiletto-wearing Kidman relished the opportunity to indulge her funny side, but the entire cast are uniformly excellent. For example, Bonneville shows off his comedic chops in a hilarious sequence in which he dresses as a lady janitor to help Paddington find information on the British explorer. It’s a far cry from his stiff-upper-lipped Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey.
Julie Walters and Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi also lend strong support. But the highest marks go to Ben Whishaw, who voices Paddington. He famously replaced Colin Firth, who was ultimately deemed not right for the role, and one cannot imagine the movie without Whishaw’s soothing, sweet-natured voice.
Paddington may be the first of the cherished bear’s big-screen adventures, but here’s hoping it won’t be his last.