Starring- Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Julie Waters, Nicole Kidman, Peter Capaldi, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent
Director- Paul King
PG- mild action and rude humor
Believe me — I’d like nothing more than to join the universal adoration with which Paddington has been met. At 98 percent on the Tomatometer, it likely already holds the title of 2015’s biggest surprise — the film itself appears to be exactly as beloved as its trailers were abhorred.
And it is indeed a lot better than you’d think — it’s a charmingly old-fashioned and un-cynical family film, an absolute rarity in any time but in ours particularly. Unfortunately, my perspective is that Paddington is a film that’s more well-intentioned than actually great.
Young Paddington Bear (voice of Ben Whishaw) lives in Darkest Peru with his aunt (voice of Imelda Staunton) and uncle (voice of Michael Gambon) and subsists mainly on marmalade — they learned the recipe from an explorer years ago. When their forest is destroyed in a fierce tropical storm, Paddington packs up and ships off to London in the hopes of finding a new home with the old explorer his aunt and uncle always told him stories about. What he finds is a version of London entirely unlike the one he expected, one where he is greeted with apathy rather than kindness and left mainly to fend for himself. However, his story moves Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), who offers to let him stay the night with her family — much to the chagrin of Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville).
All’s well and good until Paddington’s presence comes to the attention of Millicent (Nicole Kidman), an evil taxidermist with an axe to grind and an open space at the museum that simply needs a bear…
If I can say anything about Paddington that would require almost no qualification, it’s that it looks absolutely spectacular. This film was my introduction to director Paul King — his career thus far has been mainly in television, but his style nevertheless seems made for the big screen. He has an incredible eye. The cinematography on display in Paddington is some of the best I can ever remember seeing in a children’s film — not only in that it finds additional life in all of the old shots but that it’s constantly finding new angles and approaches into its scenes. There’s a lot of camera movement, but it’s gentle and spurred by the emotional needs of the scenes, enhancing them perfectly. King also turns out to be that incredibly rare director who works well with the “orange and teal” aesthetic — the orange is so soft and inviting and the teal is so rich and deep, and he’s able to twist both to other emotional ends as well. Paddington inhabits a world you want to live in; every inch of it is grand and well crafted.
It’s reflective of what impresses me the most about the film — nothing in particular that it actually accomplishes but that there isn’t an ounce of cynicism in it. Watching the trailers, you would be forgiven for thinking this was another case of a studio thinking, “Paddington! That’s a thing people have heard of! Get me a movie about Paddington, stat!” In practice, the film doesn’t feel remotely like that. It feels like a movie made by people genuinely enamored with the character and truly trying to create something special. Even in its most deeply flawed moments, Paddington is a movie that’s impossible to hate.
And that’s part of why I’m so bummed that I just didn’t like this as much as everyone else. Paddington knows what it’s doing; it just doesn’t always seem to know how. The storytelling structure is there — even if the big emotional beats are somewhat predictable, they’re mostly built into the characters, and they seem to be paced about right. The film feels like it’s exactly the right length — not rushed, not padded out, just right. Each of the main characters has an arc built into his or her story, and the film sets aside scenes to advance those and lend them definition. The cast is basically perfect; each of the actors seems to be relishing the opportunity to go just a little bit broad and play directly to an audience of children — whether that’s Hugh Bonneville in a role purposefully embarrassing to his dignified screen presence; Sally Hawkins, all sweetness and love; the youngsters playing the Brown’s children, both of whom are quite good; Nicole Kidman, becoming as much of a cartoon villain as the director will allow her; or Peter Capaldi, in a small but very funny role as the Brown’s nosy, uptight neighbor. Even the humor works, for the most part — there are some broad gags pitched at the kids, but there are a few one-liners and visual jokes for the adults as well. And what impresses me about the film’s sense of humor is that it doesn’t care whether or not you think it’s clever — there are a lot of little background jokes and throwaway lines that only attentive viewers will notice, and the filmmakers seem fine with the fact that they’re the only ones who will laugh.
Everything is right where it needs to be. The difference between the decent movie that Paddington is and the great movie that it could is so slight that it would take almost no adjustments to bridge the gap. The problem is that I’m still not entirely sure why Paddington didn’t work on me the same way it did everyone else. My best guess is that maybe it’s just a bit too obvious — the plot outline is too clear; it’s overly apparent when the film is feeding you setups that are supposed to make you feel later on; even the character arcs, complete though they may be, are telegraphed much too early on. I suppose it would be like if someone fixed your car, used all the right parts, and used them in the right place, but maybe some of the parts were of inferior quality and didn’t quite work right. That was the experience of Paddington — throughout, I was entirely aware that I should be in love with it, but I couldn’t manage to get my emotional state above mild amusement. It probably didn’t help that, despite all the technical skill that went into creating him, Paddington himself never really registered as anything other than an effect to me. I’m no expert, but given that I live in a world where Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are exists, there’s probably a version of this film with practical Paddington that I would be better able to connect with.
Then again, Paddington is, quite obviously, a film for children. A lot of critics use that as an excuse for movies that are simply pandering and badly made, but in this case, I think it’s more like a reason. This isn’t made for people like me who know the formula and can read every last thematic cue an hour before it’s actually delivered. It’s a gateway film for children that might just help them grow up into a person who can do that. It might not be an excellent film for adults, but I really don’t think it’s meant to be. It is an excellent film for children — one that executes its formula intelligently and with visual flair. It has a genuine artistic sensibility about it, one that tells its story with broad, child-friendly symbolism and intelligence. It’s a great film for kids. For that reason alone, I’m extremely glad it exists.