Paddington Bear finds himself in a bit of a jam when he sets off on an adventure in London.
I have fond memories of watching the original Paddington Bear television series in the 1970s, so it was with a mix of anticipation and skepticism that I sat down to view the beloved character’s first big movie appearance. The earlier animated series never demeaned its young audience by reveling in nonsense—something that can’t be said of most Saturday morning cartoons. Yet, after watching the promotional clips for this “new” Paddington, I was concerned. It was obvious Nicole Kidman’s character was the “bad guy”, and I wondered why the script needed one when the series never did.
The good news? Unlike most trailers, the one for Paddington focuses on the movie’s worst moments.
The film begins with Paddington’s early days in Peru, where he lives with his very industrious Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon) until an earthquake destroys their home and takes his uncle’s life (possibly the most frightening point for young viewers). Aunt Lucy, apparently well read, suggests her nephew leave for London because the people there cared so well for their children during World War II. So she puts the youngster on a freighter with a tag around his neck that reads, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” The talking cub (voiced by Colin Firth) ends up on the platform of Paddington Station in England’s capitol, and that’s where he meets the Browns.
Henry and Mary Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) and their children Judy and Jonathan (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) have mixed feelings about taking the stranger in—and none of them involve the peculiarity of discovering an orphaned, talking bear in a tube station. Mary’s mother instincts immediately engage in the need to rescue the little ursidae. Henry however, who makes his living as a risk analyst, is anything but pleased with the notion. His first reaction is to call his insurance company and add special coverage for Paddington. It’s a good thing he does, because their new friend’s first bath doesn’t go as planned.
From this point forward the Browns focus on finding Paddington a permanent home, ideally with the English explorer who originally visited Peru and offered the bear’s family a place to stay if ever they were in London. Meanwhile grumpy Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) living next door unwittingly becomes involved in plot to capture the cub and have him stuffed—a ruse planned by the evil taxidermist Millicent (Kidman). (Really, it would have been smarter if she had first checked the open market value of a live, talking bear, capable of making marmalade sandwiches!)
Stupid antagonist aside, the plot proves amazingly compelling. To begin, the writing is spiced with just the right amount of British humor. A great example is Paddington’s first attempt at using an escalator. Upon seeing the sign saying, “Dogs must be held”, he finds a pooch to take with him. And then there’s a short car chase with a British GPS that exclaims, “In 100 yards, bear left.” Other moments involve slapstick humor that never gets out of hand, and had the children in my screening laughing more than I’ve heard during a movie for some time. Finally the visual impact of this film is mesmerizing. The animated bear is perfectly integrated into a live action environment filled with intricately designed sets, props and locations. And did I mention the cool little calypso band that shows up at the most unlikely moments?
Still, there are a few pitfalls family viewers should be aware of. The violence gets a little more serious when Millicent uses darts to tranquilize animals and humans. She also ties up a cabbie and hangs him by his feet over the Thames until he blurts out the information she’s looking for. Also somewhat disappointing are a couple of brief, veiled sexual innuendos and the inclusion of a drinking game during which the Brown’s housekeeper (Julie Walters) attempts to distract a security guard. (The two end up very drunk.)
Yet I’m confident the production will offer audiences much to enjoy. For the most part, it stays true to the original spirit of Paddington. And it is one of those rare movies that will entertain parents and children alike.