These chilly winter months, my general feeling about children’s movies can be expressed in four simple words: make more of them! I would take my kids to a new movie every weekend of January and February if only there were supply to meet our demand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I like all the children’s movies we see. Even in our current golden age, there are not enough Pixar and Laika and Ghibli productions to go around, so sometimes I seize the opportunity of a children’s movie to sleep—or, if the movie’s too aggressively loud and stupid to sleep, to play a game on my phone. (Parents at crappy children’s movies are exempt from all public shaming about texting in the theater. I will brook no argument on this topic.)
So I would be happy about the existence of Paddington, the new live-action take on the floppy-hatted British bear, even if it weren’t any good. Not having read Michael Bond’s series of books as a child, I have no real allegiance to the character, though I guess I’d be vaguely disappointed if Paddington were a travesty. But I was just glad to have a movie to take my kids to on a frigid Saturday morning.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to be able to report that Paddington is a wonder: warm, gentle, well-acted, funny without being stupid. Directed by Paul King, best known for helming the cult-favorite British television series The Mighty Boosh, Paddington is also visually stylish and inventive in a way that many live-action children’s movies don’t bother to be. You won’t need a second screen to stay happy during Paddington, and your kids will love it even more than you do.
Opening with a cheeky, fake black-and-white newsreel set in “Darkest Peru,” Paddington introduces a species of talking bears discovered long ago by a British explorer. Years later, those same bears have taught their nephew, young Paddington, that the ideal state of existence is that of a cozy midcentury Brit, complete with a love of marmalade and a stockpile of polite things to say about the rain. When an earthquake destroys the little family’s jungle home, Paddington (created in CGI and voiced by Ben Whishaw, who replaced Colin Firth late in the production process) is sent off to London in search of a new family and a new home.
It’s in Paddington Station, of course, that the little bear meets the Browns, who, against the objections of their uptight patriarch (Hugh Bonneville), bring him to their Notting Hill flat. The screenplay, by King and Hamish McColl, elegantly introduces the Browns and their individual issues: Mrs. Brown (the deeply empathetic and sweet Sally Hawkins) is nurturing and warm but creatively frustrated; daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris) is embarrassed by everything her mother does, including bringing home a bear; son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) yearns for adventure but is hemmed in by his risk-analyst father, who’s prone to declaring, “Seven percent of all childhood accidents begin with jumping.”
The struggle of modern parents to get out of their helicopters is one of the central issues in Paddington, and one that will resonate with children and parents alike. (In a very funny flashback, we see a long-haired, wild Mr. Brown drive pregnant Mrs. Brown to the hospital on a motorcycle; the next day, suit-clad, he picks her and the new baby up in a Volvo.) “What’s the point of them being happy if they’re not safe?” Mr. Brown asks plaintively, but the movie argues that a world in which, say, police get called when kids walk home alone is not one in which those kids can grow up independent and resilient.
This is true even though the kids (and the bear) in Paddington face real peril, in the form of a diabolical museum curator with an eye toward catching and stuffing a prize specimen. This villain is played by Nicole Kidman with an icy cruelty that made my daughter marvel, “She’s really good at being an evil villain, isn’t she?” (My daughter’s never seen To Die For.) Kidman’s willingness to get silly is matched by the rest of the film’s human cast, including Julie Walters as the Browns’ hard-drinking housekeeper, Peter Capaldi as a meddlesome neighbor, and Jim Broadbent as a twinkly shopkeeper.
King’s direction is bright and energetic, using clever visual effects not only to bring the title character to life but to fancifully illustrate the human characters’ lives as well. The Browns’ home is frequently presented as a kind of diorama, each of its inhabitants living in his or her own little world; a mural of a cherry tree winding up alongside the home’s central staircase blooms or goes bare depending on the family’s collective mood. King’s inventive direction presents London as a kind of wonderland, full of adventure and excitement and mystery.
And it’s a city that, in this movie’s humane view, still welcomes outsiders of all kinds, whether they’re from darkest Peru or any other part of the world. The movie is punctuated with calypso music, of the type popular (as the director has pointed out) among Notting Hill’s predominantly West Indian population at the time Michael Bond was first writing the Paddington books. D Lime, the band of calypso pros assembled with Damon Albarn’s help for the movie, makes frequent appearances on city streets, performing merrily or gloomily as the scene requires. The London of Paddington is just this kind of place: a place infused with a little bit of magic, a place where those who most need assistance are embraced, and a place you’ll enjoy visiting with your kids—maybe more than one wintry Saturday in a row.