Does anyone know where I can find a home?
I remember reading Michael Bond‘s Paddington Bear books when I was a kid and might have even had a duffle coat-wearing stuffed animal too. But I couldn’t tell you a thing about those stories if you put a gun to my head and asked. I recall a little more about The Berenstain Bears and a bit more than that about Teddy Ruxpin—apparently bears just didn’t leave a huge impression upon me. Even so, however, I worried about a live action film adaptation since so many “classic” literature children’s books were being dumbed-down and appropriated by poop jokes and baseless humor for cheap laughs and infinite sequels. Hiring “The Mighty Boosh” director Paul King to helm it seemed a weird fit too, but thankfully he proved me wrong.
Not only does Paddington do a good job of catering to families with wholesome themes, it also leans into the fantasy aspect of having an anthropomorphic bear as its lead. There’s no need to pretend you’re in the real world with a character like that. You don’t have to tiptoe around logistics when the conceit itself throws logistics out the window. I settled in as soon as the young bear discovers himself on a London train platform without everyone screaming bloody murder and running away. Instead of hinging the plot on the juxtaposition of this impossibility opposite true reality, King decides to completely ignore the fact that Paddington doesn’t belong. He treats the bear like a lost child in need of help. He ensures that he feels welcome.
The result reminded me a lot of Elf for numerous reasons. There’s the sudden appearance of a fictional anomaly seeking love and causing problems any stranger in a strange land would. There’s also the family consisting of an open-minded mother (Sally Hawkins‘ Mary Brown), excitable son (Samuel Joslin‘s Jonathan), and curmudgeon (albeit with caution rather than ego as its cause) father (Hugh Bonneville‘s Henry)—with an in-need-of-softening daughter (Madeleine Harris‘ Judy) added to the mix. This familial aspect was crucial to my enjoyment because the film never specifically targets one person in need of opening his/her eyes. Henry performs that role, but he’s never without the others by his side. The Browns are a team working together to eventually prove to Paddington (Ben Whishaw) that his inevitable adoption is pure.
Their relationship might be initially strained, but their goals are aligned as far as finding the bear a home. This is why he’s made the journey from Darkest Peru in the first place. With an earthquake destroying the only place he had ever known, Paddington leaves Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) behind to take up an explorer (Tim Downie‘s Montgomery Clyde) on his word of having a place to stay in London. It’s been forty years since Clyde stumbled upon the bears’ Peruvian sanctuary, though. So finding him won’t be easy when all they have is a hat as a clue. But Mary will never give up. If Henry won’t let Paddington stay, she’ll make certain he gets settled somewhere that’s not an orphanage.
To make matters worse, however, there’s also a villain lurking in the shadows. Natural History Museum Director (and professional taxidermist) Millicent is a perfectly written antagonist with arch purposes that don’t need to be entirely known for us to respect her as a formidable foe. And Nicole Kidman plays the part with relish, her broad expressions and wild “Mission: Impossible” theatrics stealing the show in many instances. She hopes Paddington can be her legacy at the museum—the crown jewel of a collection featuring uniquely wonderful animals from all over the world. And with the help of the Browns’ smitten neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), she only has to wait until the bear is alone. That and hope Paddington’s unplanned Rube Goldberg-esque thwarting of her advances cease.
Add some funny periphery players (Jim Broadbent as jovial antiques aficionado Mr. Gruber, Julie Walters as the Browns’ live-in housekeeper Mrs. Bird, and Matt Lucas‘ bumbling cabbie Joe to name a few) and the adventure becomes a fast-paced whirlwind of domestic chaos and dangerous displays of courage. King has a family-friendly reason for every conflict and a knack for letting the few odd “gross-out” gags be narratively relevant rather than randomly infused. It helps too that Hawkins is delightful as a mother full of love for all children and awkwardly unabashed in proving so despite her targets’ embarrassment. And that Bonneville’s comic timing is marked by expert precision to never stumble into unwarranted villainy himself. He’s putout rather than angry, cutely paranoid rather than intentionally malicious.
This means Paddington isn’t in too much physical distress for the majority of the film. He’s emotionally drained from leaving his home behind to seek out a new one, but his worst-case scenario is being given to the authorities to find an imperfect solution. Yes, Millicent is looming with a desire to stuff him, but her antics are mostly relegated to background intrigue until the climax places her on the same set as the Browns once and for all. So it’s never too much for young children in the audience. King eases us into the darker regions of the story so we fall in love with Paddington and know the Browns will do anything to save him. He ostensibly sets up a safety net through nuanced character development.
King also finds room for some stunningly intuitive visual panache. Whether it’s the tree design painted on the Browns’ wall that alters with the changing tonal atmosphere, an attic dollhouse that opens to reveal each family member in their own rooms doing something in-line with the narration’s needs, or simpler sight gags orchestrated with signage and effective production design, there’s always something to discover in every corner of the frame. It’s this level of detail that warrants repeat viewings despite the story itself proving quite minimalist as far as complexity goes. But that’s a big part of its charmingly impressive success. The filmmakers keep the script compact for kids to follow along easily and the imagery expansive to occupy the adults when forthcoming revelations are surely guessed correctly.