Brightly-colored, cheerful, clever, good-hearted and visually striking, Paul King’s Paddington has enough going for it to overcome its more boilerplate story aspects. Let’s face it, the movie is family fare — aimed primarily at children — so the story isn’t likely to be complex and is likely to be awash in the sort of life lessons such films are wont to promote. And — apart from the additional jabs at xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments — that’s pretty much what we have here by way of story. On nearly every other level, including most of the gags, Paddington is a remarkable work — so far ahead of any live-action (well, mostly live-action) family movies that it would be disgraceful to mention it in the same breath with them. The last time something of this nature was this truly special was P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan, which came out on Christmas Day in 2003.
Stylistically, Paddington sits somewhere on the border of Wes Anderson and Tim Burton — with Anderson being more prominent in the mix. The most obvious Burton aspect lies in the pastel London row houses, which makes it feel like we’re in an English Edward Scissorhands (1990). (For that matter, the plot is by no means dissimilar, with a good-hearted mother bringing the title character into the house without considering the consequences for all involved.) Mostly, the film — with its giant breakaway dollhouse-like set (which might have been inspired by Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners) and its gadgets and Rube Goldberg designed gags — has a distinctly Anderson vibe to it. One can also spot some connections to Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s animated Up (2009) with its adventurer travelogue newsreel footage. But in the end, Paddington is mostly its own beast — its bright paint box colors and gentle sense of humor being not quite like anything else.
Of course, the basics of Paddington are well-known to the British but not so much perhaps to American audiences. I admit to only the dimmest familiarity with the character and have never even seen any of the books. (This may partly be an age thing as well as a cultural one.) Happily, the film functions as an origins story, which works out very nicely for the uninitiated — and which has been cleverly but reasonably updated to bring the story into the modern world. Michael Bond’s original Paddington was based in part on the image of post-WWII refugee children in Great Britain with tags around their necks asking people to look after them. That’s the case with Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), whose aging Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) — working on 50-plus-year-old information about the welcoming nature of the English — parcels the young bear off from “darkest Peru” to Britain with one of those tags around his neck. Of course, much has changed in those years, and that welcoming nature is hard to find.
Even when Paddington is taken in by the Browns — with grave misgivings from Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) — the little fellow finds himself the object of suspicion from the neighborhood busybody Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who is not much worried about a talking bear but is horrified by Paddington being foreign. Worse, there is the downright evil Millicent (Nicole Kidman in a bleached blonde Louise Brooks bob) from the Natural History Museum, who is obsessed with turning Paddington into a taxidermied display. And then there’s Paddington’s natural tendency toward accidents of the disastrous kind, making him far from the ideal houseguest.
Nearly all of the film works — and when it doesn’t quite, it quickly recovers itself. One of the things that makes it stand out from the crowd is its almost complete lack of post-modern snark and random pop culture references. Paddington is perfectly content to be a little old-fashioned, and that’s just fine. There aren’t even very many adult jokes worked in — though one of them (about the origin of Paddington’s Uncle Pastuzo’s name) is priceless — and those that are will fly right over all but the most precocious children’s heads. It’s all fun and stylish and great looking — with a terrific cast. I can’t think of a single reason not to see this movie. Rated PG for mild action and rude humor.