'Paddington' Is Way Better Than It Has Any Right To Be
Last summer when the first trailers for Paddington debuted, it was revealed that the cuddly little bear known in children’s literature for his ensemble of rain boots, floppy hat and bright blue coat, had been recreated in CGI, and fallen uncomfortably in the uncanny valley. This spawned a macabre meme that posited Paddington in scenes of abject horror like this:
He’d tipped from cuddly to creepy, so my hopes were low for Paddington. But my cynicism was quickly conquered by a kids’ movie that’s downright delightful.
The story begins with a battered bit of film telling of an intrepid Englishman’s exploration of Peru where he found a pair of bears who were almost human in their interactions. After a cultural exchange of sorts, he returned home, and left these bears forever changed with a taste for marmalade and an education in English. Years later, their little nephew Paddington is urged to leave their Ewok-style tree huts when tragedy strikes, and sent to England in search of the explorer and a new home. Instead, he finds a family divided and in desperate need of his misadventures and love.
This right here is a charming story. Ben Whishaw brings a jolly whimsy to the little brown bear who is considered little more than a bother by the blustery Mr. Brown (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville). But Mrs. Brown (the always affable Sally Hawkins) is charmed by this unusual orphan, and their children—the inventive Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and the jaded Judy (Madeleine Harris)—are intrigued. Paddington comes into their home, and makes the mess teased in trailers, but also manages to help these four and the loopy maid Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) find common ground. Amid gags that are sure to make kids chuckle and lots of cute moments of Paddington being a silly bear, there are some bits of wit sure to appeal to adults as well. It’s entertaining and adorable. Then there’s the murder plot.
It’s strange. Paddington seems totally solid in its premise: lost bear finds a family willing to help him track down a long-lost explorer, but in the search finds his home is right under his nose. Then for a reason I positively cannot fathom the screenwriters (director Paul King and Hamish McColl) decide to lace in a homicidal taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, because sure) who wants nothing more than to take this rare specimen that is Paddington and kill him, skin him and stuff him. In a kids’ movie!
The addition of an adversary is not necessary, but maybe King and McColl thought it would help raise the stakes. It certainly does, leading to one scene where I—a grown-up and critic who knows full well they’d never dare murder the title character of a kid’s movie in the climax—for a moment genuinely believed Paddington was going to bite it. I gasped. And then I hear a child behind me full-on wail. Higher stakes achieved! But couldn’t this mad taxidermist have been a mad zookeeper and avoided that awkward post-movie conversation with toddlers about why the lady with the impeccable fashion sense (catsuits and platinum bobs to die for) was trying to slaughter their beloved Paddington? “What are taxidermists, mummy? And why are they so wicked?”
Kidman has a lot of fun with the role of psycho Millicent, even mixing it up with Peter Capaldi, who plays the Brown family’s nosey and none-too-subtly racist neighbor. (There’s a theme of the joy and richness diversity can bring to a community that’s welcomed, though a bit heavy-handed.) Theirs is a familiar dance of seduction and scheming. But their scenes feel like they are from a totally different movie than the playful jaunt about a little bear who accidentally foils pickpockets, rekindles the romantic love between two tired parents, and teaches a teen to lighten up. After that murderous meme, who knew that Paddington would be the least terrifying figure in his movie?
Homicide aims aside, Paddington is a rollicking ride filled with heart and humor, and one that I’d heartily recommend almost without reservation. But considering the intense maliciousness and vivid murderous plot of its lead villainess, I’d be mindful of your own cub’s sensitivities before taking them to the cinema.