In the wake The Cat in the Hat, Garfield: The Movie, and The Smurfs, kid-friendly cine-atrocities that collapsed in a sea of gaudy excess and shameless pandering, one approaches Paul King’s adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved Paddington Bear books with trepidation. But Paddington, even if it isn’t entirely free of such irritations, is surprising for the way it finds a near-ideal balance between its childlike playfulness and displays of mature wisdom.
After an earthquake kills Paddington’s uncle, Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), and destroys their “Darkest Peru” treehouse, Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton)—taking to heart the encouraging call of the British explorer who, upon discovering the bears, beckoned them to come visit him—sends the young cub (Ben Whishaw) to London to find a better home for himself. Naturally, being a bear who’s never experienced the hustle and bustle of urban life, Paddington is taken aback by the comparable soullessness of the big city, especially the indifferent, always-on-the-go people operating within it. But he encounters a notable exception in the Brown family, beginning with its open-hearted matriarch (Sally Hawkins), who names him after the train station in which he’s found and implores her control-freak husband (Hugh Bonneville) and somewhat-embarrassed kids, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris), to bring the bear home with them for at least one night.
The film’s characterization of the Browns is key to grasping King’s distinctive take on Bond’s iconic cartoon bear. Beyond the slapsticky, almost Rube Goldbergian hijinks toward which Paddington’s cluelessness about human behavior leads, the film also reveals itself to be something of paean to being yourself. An Easy Rider-like flashback to Mr. Brown’s more free-spirited self contrasts sharply with the thoroughly integrated middle-class patriarch he would become; Judy, meanwhile, is so ashamed of her parents that she’s afraid of introducing her boyfriend to them. Each member of the family, however, has specific talents—Judy’s facility with learning foreign languages, Jonathan’s interest in science, Mrs. Brown’s whimsical sensibility as a professional illustrator—that Paddington, however unconsciously, helps bring out of them through his shenanigans. Most poignantly, he rouses Mr. Brown out of his risk-averse shell, to the point that, during the film’s climax, he’s walking on a window ledge and putting his own life on the line to rescue Paddington from danger.
This is familiar kids-movie uplift, but King’s sincerity is a blessed reprieve from the snarky, self-aware antics of Shrek and its ilk. No above-it-all smugness here: In the filmmaker’s hands, even Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist villain is given a halfway-sympathetic motivation to explain her desire to track down and stuff Paddington. The film occasionally succumbs to the lowest-common denominator, as in an early gross-out gag in which Paddington mistakes toothbrushes for ear brushes, but King’s exuberant visual invention keeps things consistently lively, as he finds opportunities for visual and verbal gags—a tree design on the Browns’ wallpaper that loses its leaves at a crucial juncture, or a black-and-white film into which Paddington literally enters as he learns the identity of the British explorer who discovered him—seemingly everywhere he looks. And, mercifully, King is never too taken by his own cleverness. Even when he unveils the Brown household in a dollhouse-like manner that recalls similar gags in Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Paddington recalls its stylistic forbears at their best: flowing with whimsy, but never at the expense of the beating heart of its human (and animal) characters.