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Paddington Movie Review

Paddington (2015) movie poster Paddington

US Theatrical Release: January 16, 2015 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Paul King / Writers: Paul King (screenplay & screen story), Hamish McColl (screen story), Michael Bond (character)

Cast: Hugh Bonneville (Mr. Henry Brown), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Mary Brown), Nicole Kidman (Millicent), Ben Whishaw (voice of Paddington Bear), Julie Walters (Mrs. Bird), Jim Broadbent (Mr. Gruber), Peter Capaldi (Mr. Curry), Matt Lucas (Taxi Driver), Kayvan Novak (Animal Supplier), Madeleine Harris (Judy Brown), Samuel Joslin (Jonathan Brown), Michael Gambon (voice of Uncle Pastuzo), Imelda Staunton (voice of Aunt Lucy), Geoffrey Palmer (Head of Geographer's Guild), Alice Lowe (Geographer's Receptionist), Matt King (Andre the Thief)

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Once a cornerstone of children's literature, Paddington Bear seems to have been dwindling in recognizability for some time in America, at least. He's still popular enough to know the name and to identify a bear in a hat and/or rain boots as him. But since he was first introduced in 1958 by author Michael Bond, Paddington has been eclipsed by other anthropomorphic bears in fiction:
Winnie the Pooh, Yogi Bear, and Teddy Ruxpin. Enter David Heyman. Heyman knows a thing or two about adapting British kids' lit to the screen: he produced all eight Harry Potter films to enormous profit, wonderment, and acclaim. In a similar vein, his production of Paddington, a live-action film with a CGI titular lead, is destined for at least two of those three things here. The one question mark is profit and Paddington has already generated plenty of that in parts of the world where it was released late last year, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.

In North America, the film is distributed by The Weinstein Company, a studio known more for prestigious award winners than commercial triumphs. Though initially scheduled to open here on Christmas Day in a crowded and cutthroat marketplace, Paddington was delayed until this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, where it faces far less competition and none of it direct, with family-friendly offerings having burned off much demand over the holiday season.

In "Paddington", a Peruvian bear experiences life in London.

Paddington opens in black and white Academy Ratio, set in the indistinct past. Recalling Pixar's Up, it assumes the stylings of an old short film. This prologue details the adventures of a human explorer, who on a voyage to "Darkest Peru" encounters a family of bears who talk. The two species exchange culture with one another and the bears vow to one day visit the explorer's home land of London. Cut to the more or less present day, in which the film is predominantly set, and we'll find young Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) calling Peru home along with his Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Potter alums Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon). A great storm divides the family and demolishes their idyllic home in the trees. It prompts Lucy to send young Paddington to London with a polite note around his neck asking for someone to take care of him.

Traveling by mail barge and bag and sustaining himself on a diet entirely of jars of marmalade, Paddington arrives in a London quite different than how it was described. At the train station that comes to lend him an English name, the bear can hardly get anyone's attention, much less their assistance. He does luck out when encountered by Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) and her family of four, who at the matriarch's insistence reluctantly agree to give Paddington a place to spend the night.

The Browns' storybook house is a place of considerable yet temporary comfort for the bear. Mr. Brown ("Downton Abbey"'s Hugh Bonneville), a cautious risk analyst, is leery of the dangers posed by bringing an unknown bear into the household. The kids are split on the houseguest: pre-teen elder sister Judy (Madeleine Harris) finds the situation, like most things, "embarrassing", but her younger brother Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) embraces it. Alas, an orphanage institution seems like Paddington's prescribed destination, unless he can track down the explorer who first discovered his family so long ago. It proves to be a challenging mystery and one that is complicated by a history museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who is determined to locate the talking bear and put him on display, stuffed.

Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) isn't crazy about the notion of putting up a bear in his house. Cold-hearted museum taxidermy director Millicent (Nicole Kidman) has her heart set on stuffing Paddington for display.

Paddington would be a pleasant surprise at any time of the year, but it's especially disarming in January, a month Hollywood has long reserved for dreck that has no possibility of generating good word-of-mouth but can still make money as counterprogramming across from the slowly-expanding end-of-year awards fare.
Paddington actually belongs more to the latter class, even if its award season presence is unlikely to extend beyond the two unexpected BAFTA nominations it recently drew. It was eligible for the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, though it's not clear how, since that generally requires at least a one-week qualifying North American release with standard marketing. Of course, as Heyman could tell you, the Oscars are not terribly receptive towards films sprung from children's literature: his Potter films didn't win any from their twelve nominations in minor technical categories.

You don't need Oscars to validate cinema whose magic is plain for all to see. That was true of Potter and it is true of Paddington. This is a delightful film full of heart, humor, and whimsy. Writer/director Paul King is not likely a name you'll know. The Brit, best known for directing nearly every episode of the UK series "The Mighty Boosh", just made one minor feature film prior to this. King's background is strictly comedy; he doesn't have a single kid-friendly credit on his resume. That might give some producers pause, but it's really a blessing.

Those who regularly dabble in family fare tend to grow complacent and settle for mediocrity. In contrast, King reminds one of the creative team behind 2011's The Muppets and Martin Scorsese on Hugo. King is clearly a smart and funny person excited to explore this playground for the first time. He does so with complete respect for Michael Bond's character (the author, now 89, implies approval with an awesome cameo). Some cursory research reveals that King has largely remained true to the books and the characters. He is building upon it to be sure and not remaining slavish to the narrative of any one book. But this is decidedly not a betrayal and gladly not another entry to the prevailing mold of live-action-with-CGI family film, the crassly commercial and increasingly unfulfilling Alvin and the Chipmunks and Smurfs series.

Paddington is more on the order of one of Pixar's better films, only with the British wit of Aardman Animations. With the exception of brief, humorous Oreo product placement and an end credits song by Pharrell Williams and Gwen Stefani, the film displays little regard for commercial demands. It doesn't pander to Americans or rely excessively on physical gags (plus, the comedy bits are actually funny and only once gross). There are more jokes that adults will appreciate than kids (not innuendo, mind you), which is more than fine and will give this more of a shelf life than your typical PG-rated movie.

King, who acknowledges dozens of contributors to the screenplay in the end credits, does a little bit of borrowing, but only from proven winners and in ways that suit the material. The Brown house and family are fleshed out with the flair and ingenuity of Wes Anderson. A genuinely suspenseful action climax recalls Toy Story 3 slightly. Impressively, King even manages to use every part of the buffalo, so to speak. There isn't a character or idea introduced that isn't put to terrific use on multiple occasions, from the emergency marmalade sandwich Paddington keeps under his hat to entertaining supporting characters played by veterans like Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, and Matt Lucas.

Paddington stays appealing and nimble from start to finish. The last time a family movie surprised critics in the early part of the year was The Lego Movie, which went on to be an extraordinary blockbuster. I can only strongly hope that this movie is similarly rewarded for its rampant creativity and artful instincts. The bar for commercial success is obviously well beneath Lego Movie's quarter-billion domestic gross. If this could perform on the order of Nanny McPhee ($47.1 M in 2006), perhaps the last commendable family film to open in January, or The Giver ($45 M), Weinstein's last literary adaptation, the studio should probably be pleased. But this is a film with four-quadrant appeal that deserves to be seen by as many people who have attended other hit live-action family films, most of which aren't nearly this good.

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Related Reviews:
The Pirates! Band of Misfits The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Muppets Fantastic Mr. Fox Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory Hugo The Lego Movie Night at the Museum Matilda Yogi Bear
Hugh Bonneville: Muppets Most Wanted The Monuments Men | Nicole Kidman: Just Go With It | Ben Whishaw: Brideshead Revisited
Jim Broadbent: Inkheart Valiant Arthur Christmas | Julie Walters: Driving Lessons Gnomeo & Juliet Brave
Produced by David Heyman: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 Gravity The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

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Reviewed January 16, 2015.

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