One could be forgiven for expecting the Paddington movie – another modern, live-action update of a beloved old children’s’ book, to be some rubbish in the vein of Garfield or The Cat in the Hat. The early news about the project was either about people photoshopping the CGI title character into ‘creepy Paddington’ memes, or that it’s lead voice actor (Colin Firth) dropped out at the 11th hour. What a pleasant surprise then, that not only is Paddington good, it’s an utter delight. There will be no accusations of ruining childhoods here. That’s not to say that Paddington’s origins haven’t been thoroughly updated (he debuted in the late nineteen-fifties), but they’ve been done so in a manner completely true to the original spirit.
It begins with black-and-white footage of an old expedition to “darkest Peru”, where explorer Montgomery Clyde discovers an elusive new species of intelligent bear, whom he introduces to Marmalade and various other things, while attempting to teach them some (very proper) English. Many years later, the bears, now elderly and fluent in English (voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton) live with their young nephew. After a tragic Earthquake strikes their home, the young one is sent off to search for a new life in London, where he meets the kindly Brown family.
Particularly for a modestly budgeted British/French production, the CGI bear effects (by Framestore) are uniformly excellent. The early Peru-set sequences are as impressive animation-wise as anything from a major studio, and later completely convincing when interacting with the live-action actors too. Seeing the finished product, it seems completely understandable that Firth exited now, I can’t quite imagine him conveying Paddington’s naïve yet good-natured optimism appropriately. His replacement, an almost unrecognisable turn from perennially underrated actor Ben Whishaw (Perfume, Skyfall, Cloud Atlas) is flawless in the role. The animation and voice work combine to make an instantly endearing character you may find yourself truly caring for.
If Paddington’s competing with Hollywood on a technical front, it’s pleasing to note that the humour is still distinctly, and unashamedly British – there’s a line about London weather that had me howling with laughter. There’s more than just witty dialogue though, Paddington packs in a great deal of visual gags too, including some anarchic slapstick shenanigans, and even an action scene or two. Highlights include a hysterically funny chase sequence that occurs on Paddington’s first excursion into town that successfully combines all these elements.
As marvellous as it is, Paddington’s sadly not perfect. It goes for a bit of uncharacteristically juvenile ‘gross-out’ humour on a couple of occasions, plus utilises some tiresomely familiar lazy soundtrack choices, these are at least all brief though. Its overall soundtrack is otherwise fine and it makes amusing use of an actual calypso band who Paddington encounters from time to time. The unfortunate lowest moment in the film occurs during Paddington’s attempts to track down Montgomery Clyde. After being denied entry to the Geographical Society’s library, he and Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) infiltrate it by having Bonneville dress up as a woman, where he inevitably finds himself on the receiving end of unwanted advances from an employee. It’s the only real blip in an otherwise consistently funny film.
Paddington is also in love with the city of London in a way that feels completely genuine. This isn’t the phoney, romanticised picture-postcard view of Woody Allen or Richard Curtis; Paddington is initially ignored by everyone he seeks assistance from, plus he has an early encounter with a thief. However, even though it gets in the checklist of London landmarks, director Paul King brings the location to life in such a warm, recognizable manner that when the film ended I was pining to move back there. King’s visual prowess extends to the interiors too, there are fantastic, Wes Anderson-style moments detailing the Brown family home, plus a visual trick in the lair of the film’s villain (an evil taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman) that’s so brilliant yet simple I can’t believe no-one’s thought of it before.
Paddington, like its title character, is a rare breed – a real family film. Not a children’s film, or a children’s film with added adult references, but a one that everyone of all ages can enjoy. We’re only a couple of weeks in but already may have found this year’s Lego Movie. Paddington is an incredibly funny, visually inventive, and completely engaging adventure story (there’s a moment near the end that led to audible gasps throughout my cinema), but one with a sincerely positive message about fitting in to warm the hardest of hearts. Honestly, it’s just wonderful.