by Ken B.
One of the greatest cinematic joys is a film, that while aimed for a younger audience, manages to be a complete success for audience members of just about every age group. Paddington is a shining example of this, where there are jokes for little kids and jokes for older folks, but no one is disproportionately over or undercompensated. Factor in a great, storied cast which blends together brilliantly alongside seamless visual effects which combine the animated and live action worlds, and you’ve got not only an exemplary example of a family film, but what I would argue as one of this year’s finest films in general.
I’m presuming that most of my British readers are familiar with who Paddington Bear is, and so they are more than welcome to skip this and the next paragraph (as well as anyone else who is familiar with the character). But for the newcomers, this is a movie based on Michael Bond’s enduring series of children’s books, which have been a staple of English literature for a couple of generations now. Paul King adapts the story of Paddington (voice of Ben Whishaw), a small, optimistic bear who at the start of the movie lives in the Peruvian forest with his Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (voice of Michael Gambon). Lucy and Pastuzo were discovered many years ago by a British geographer (Tim Downie) who informed the talking bears that they could visit London any time.
Now the offer must be taken up – when their home is destroyed in an earthquake and Pastuzo is presumably killed, with only his beloved red hat left behind, Lucy decides to move into the Home for Retired Bears and send Paddington off to London in a lifeboat, with a case full of marmalade and his uncle’s hat. Upon arrival, he is taken in by the Brown family – or rather, Mrs. Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), who must work to convince her straight-edged husband Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) to accept their new resident. Suffice it to say that Paddington (his adoptive name, so to speak – his bear name is far too difficult for most humans to pronounce correctly) has a bit of a difficulty adjusting to his new home. The plan is for the stay with the Browns to be temporary, as Paddington searches for the man who met his aunt and uncle all those years ago.
It might not seem apparent going in, but by the end of Paddington’s 95 minute runtime, there is an ever-so-sly allegory that King has crafted, in that Mrs. Brown, her husband, and the film’s antagonist, taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), all represent various viewpoints on the sliding scale of immigration ideologies. Its politicizing is not obnoxious – in fact, it’s barely noticeable – but what starts out as a harmless (and frequently very funny) movie ends with a clear statement against xenophobia. With political parties like UKIP in the movie’s native country of the United Kingdom constantly stirring the pot on this issue, and a presidential election here in the United States where such a subject is a major focus, it’s great to see a story of simple love and acceptance in contrast to the drawling sermonization coming from politicians on all sides in the real world.
But messages aside, I must reiterate that Paddington is an absolutely brilliant film. King’s screenplay is packed with marvelous gags and emotional depth, and Whishaw’s voice work as the titular character embodies the dialogue he is speaking perfectly. Paddington Bear comes off as an instantaneously lovable and charming individual. Whishaw’s live action cast mates, which include noteworthy actors like Bonneville, Hawkins, Kidman, Julie Walters as the Browns’ crafty housekeeper, and Peter Capaldi as their gullible neighbor, are uniformly solid. You have to give them credit for giving full effort to their work, and not slacking off just because it’s a comedy for kids. The actors recognize the talents of the screenplay as well as the legacy of the source and treat it with the energy and entertainment that they would a more dramatic, mature project. That’s always a good thing.
From slapstick comedy to a touching finale which could also be construed as a wonderful, positive statement on adoption (yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on here), Paddington succeeds in just about everything it sets out to do. You’re never going to be bored – the runtime zips by and there’s always a big setpiece right around the corner – and you’ll never get the impression that King is talking down to any demographic. The visual effects are polished, the writing is sharp with its excellent sense of humor and well-flowing story, and the cast is truly delightful. Everything comes together for magnificent results. Often in the world of media aimed at kids, anyone who’s above the age of, say, seven, is left without anything to do. This is a problem for theatrical films, where parents and other people whose age is in the double digits will invariably have to be present. King knows that, and energetically adapts his source material into a multilayered tribute. This is a movie that truly is for everyone.