A live-action film about the storybook character of Paddington Bear is a film that is essentially operating on a minefield, waiting to make just one simple, juvenile mistake, blow up, and descend into a pit of irredeemable senselessness. Thankfully, the film is mannered and thoroughly enjoyable, thanks to careful hands in the writing department by director Paul King and Hamish McColl, who delicately balance the right amount of manic energy and human sincerity needed to make this kind of a film succeed on the level it was born to thrive on.
The film opens in the jungles of darkest Peru, where an explorer by the name of Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) locates a plethora of bears who can speak English, communicate effectively, and thrive on marmalade, where they get their vitamins and nutrients. Clyde informs the bears, Lucy and Pastuzo, with their young nephew, who would later go on to be known as Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), that if they ventured out to live in Britain, they would be welcome with open arms. When an earthquake strikes the jungles, however, the family gets separated, with Paddington urges by Lucy to head to London on a ship so that he could live a better life.
In London, Paddington wanders aimlessly around a train station, shocked at the hustle and bustle of a community he was told would welcome him warmly. He winds up meeting the Brown family, led by the hardened, safety-conscious Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and the genial Mary (Sally Hawkins), who live with their two children, the curious and creative Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and the reclusive but incredibly smart Judy (Madeleine Harris). Mary decides after a brief conversation with the bear to allow him into the home, giving him the name Paddington after the train station they found him at. Henry is constantly preoccupied with the safety and wellbeing of his children, which makes him angry that a bear as clumsy and as silly as Paddington has come to live with them. While the bear means well and is simply trying to find a nice home, it causes a great deal of problems for the Brown family, who were once so accustomed to their simple and menial lifestyles.
The bear winds up drawing attention from Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), the daughter of Montgomery, who works as a taxidermist, tracking down and capturing exotic animals so she can stuff them and use them to add to her collection at the National History Museum. Paddington soon winds up becoming the hottest commodity in London without even trying.
Paddington is decorated like Wes Anderson came over and micromanaged every set and every piece of the production, however, leaving the camera angles and shots up to King himself. The film is littered with primary colors, inclusions of tacky little knick-knacks, and several shots dedicated to showing off the pictorial side of the film. Cinematographer Erik Wilson creates a beautiful, playful atmosphere inside “Paddington,” one with so much whimsy and warmth that you feel like you climbed within the hardbound covers of a storybook. The film remains consistently inviting, even in its darkest scenes in the jungle.
Arguably, Paddington is one of the strongest bear films audiences have yet to see, with most films about anthropomorphic bears being silly or downright crude. Paddington has its moments of crudeness and goofiness, but King and McColl find a way to incorporate all the manic energy of Paddington within a story that is simultaneously very touching and personal. Never is the scale tilted so far one way we feel something is missing; much like the bold cinematography and set design on display here, everything is put in its place and every theme or scene has a purpose, and it’s rare to find this kind of structure nowadays, especially in a children’s film.
NOTE: As of this writing, Paddington is available to stream on Netflix and Hulu.
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Nicole Kidman. Voiced by: Ben Whishaw. Directed by: Paul King.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!