Put a small, talking bear in a red hat and a blue overcoat, and your work at creating a charming lead character is already halfway finished. Paddington writer-director Paul King fully embraces the whimsical absurdity of his main character to craft a delightful movie that’s unapologetically weird even if it’s narrative is fairly unremarkable. Although the movie can lean a little heavily at times on gross-out humor and slapstick, the picture truly shines when it chooses to be playful with its visuals and characters without shunning unmistakably dry British humor.
After his home in Darkest Peru is destroyed by an Earthquake, a young, talking bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is informed by his elderly Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) that he should go to London because the people there kindly took in orphans during World War II. When he arrives at the train station, he discovers that no one is all that interested in adopting a cuddly, polite bear (which strains credulity almost as much him being able to talk). However, he manages to catch the attention of the Brown family, and Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) wants to take him in until they can find him a proper home, but her highly risk-averse husband Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) wants their unusual guest gone as quickly as possible. While the young bear, dubbed “Paddington” by Mrs. Brown because that’s the station where they found him, tries to find the explorer who taught Paddington’s aunt how to talk, his warmth and curiosity begins to bring the estranged family closer together, although they’re all unaware that he’s in the crosshairs of maniacal taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman).
King takes a refreshing approach to normalcy in that he uses reality whenever it suits him and discards it when it gets in the way. The explorer who meets the bears of Darkest Peru is dumbstruck when he learns that they can talk, but when Paddington arrives in London, no one seems to care that there’s a small bear wearing a hat, walking around, and asking to be adopted even though there’s no one else like him. Rather than get bogged down in having a one-of-a-kind creature wandering about London, Paddington is viewed as more of nuisance rather than one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.
And it works because while the prologue does explain why Paddington can talk and loves marmalade, the true purpose of the opening scene is to show that we’re in for a very weird and cute movie that will have a timeless quality to it. Rather than attempt to make Paddington hip and therefore “relatable” (to whom, I have no idea), King realizes that it’s better to make him a bumbling, charming, good-natured character who gets into lots of mischief. He shakes things up for the Browns, but in a way where they all settle into being better people.
Watching Paddington, I was reminded of the plot of 1992’s Beethoven, another film where an animal comes into a nice home, and whose troublesome ways end up making the father less uptight and more of a role model. But I’m not going to hold up Beethoven as an influential piece of classic cinema to which Paddington owes a debt, because Paddington came first (the book A Bear Called Paddington was released in 1958). But as a framework for a family film, Paddington felt familiar to me because I saw Beethoven when I was eight, and King’s film is perfect for kids around that age.
But Paddington is better than Beethoven because while they both hammer home the simple messages of “Take chances,” “Family is important,” “Home is where the heart is,” etc, Paddington is visually imaginative and creative, which at turns gives the movie a childlike sensibility (like viewing the Browns household through the framing of a dollhouse) or silliness that adult audiences will appreciate such as seeing Mr. Brown before and after he has children.
Paddington is a prime example of what differentiates a solid family film from a pandering “kids’ movie”. To his great credit, King did not go the Yogi Bear route (although both films choose to make the animated protagonist resemble a real bear), and stayed true not only to the character’s personality, but to his British origin. There are times when the movie goes for the easy laughs like Paddington dunking his head in the toilet to drink water, but more often than not, it goes for something sweeter, wittier, and worthy of its adorable hero.