"Embarrassing... but tasty."
Ten years ago, Disney took a chance on Garth Jennings, a creator of videos and short comedic films as part of the duo Hammer & Tongs, to direct a film of one of British literature's greatest satirical works, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. While the film is certainly a mixed bag, it brilliantly captures the spirit of Douglas Adams' most celebrated work, and features a game cast down for just about anything. These thoughts ran through my head as I watched the new family film Paddington, based on another beloved book series by a British author. The film is directed by Paul King, a man primarily known for his work with British comedy team The Mighty Boosh, and similarly features a terrifically talented cast of normally buttoned-down types going for broke in an uproariously funny film that's fun for the whole family.
While Americans don't have the strong ties to the books that our friends across the pond do, Michael Bond's series of books about Paddington Bear is beloved for its delicate blend of humor and familial warmth. So too does the film excellently capture the same mix, adding in a healthy dose of early cinema slapstick that makes the film feel both quaint and fresh. Physical comedy has become undervalued in the past decade or so, but it's the one truly universal style of humor, and the one most often overlooked or horribly misused in live action family films. One of the reasons that Jim Henson's Muppets continue to endure is the way they brilliantly dust off vaudeville tropes and place them in incongruously modern settings. So too does Paddington go broad while always remaining grounded in a world just slightly off-kilter from reality.
It should also come as no surprise that this film was produced by David Heyman, the man who brought Harry Potter to the screen, a series whose stock in trade was getting "respectable" British actors to ham it up in a fantasy setting. This film gives us everyone from Peter Capaldi and Hugh Bonneville to Potter regulars Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters loosening up their typically straight-laced personas and having an awful lot of fun doing so. For those not in the know, Paddington is the name given to a young bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) whose family of bears live in darkest Peru, and were taught about human society, and the virtues of a delicious marmalade—by a British explorer. When his home is hit by an earthquake, Paddington sets sail on a boat loaded with marmalade, and ends up in London, making his way to Paddington Station where he meets the Brown family, who agree to take him in.
Paddington wreaks all manner of havoc on this stuffy family, pushing father Henry's (Bonneville) patience to its breaking point. Thankfully artsy mom Mary (Sally Hawkins), and their two children like having Paddington around, and convince Henry to let him stay. While trying to get to the bottom of Paddington's roots, he runs afoul of Millicent (Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist with a connection to Paddington's past who wants to see the bear stuffed in her museum. While the plot bears (no pun intended) all the creaky hallmarks and well-worn tropes of the family genre, it manages to feel light, breezy, and fun without ever being wholly original.
A good deal of the credit for that has to go to writer/director King, whose refusal to let any of these conventions bog down the film's narrative is what helps to elevate it above the typical family fare. His reliance on slapstick, silent comedy, and sight gags taps into the vein of humor that will appeal to everyone from ages 5-95. There's certainly nothing groundbreaking about Paddington, but its ability to use these conventions to its favor, rather than let the film be dictated by them, is what makes it such a rousing success. The production design is also slyly brilliant, including a trip to the hilariously named "Geography Guild," whose steampunk-esque mechanized contraptions give the film a feel that is both wildly advanced and brilliantly out of step with modern society.
As I've already mentioned, the cast helps to truly cement the style of the piece, and for once, the amount of fun clearly being had by the actors is proportional to how much fun the film itself is. Whether it's an hysterically bewigged Jim Broadbent, or a smarmy Peter Capaldi, the cast is engaged with the material and therefore engaged with the audience. I don't think I've ever seen Nicole Kidman so connected to a character, and that's not to say that I think she's a terrible, nasty person the way her character is, but when finally given the chance to vamp it up and let her hair down a bit, she's actually very good. Ben Whishaw also perfectly captures Paddington's voice, and while I would have liked to have heard what Colin Firth was going to do with the role, I think they made the absolute right decision to ultimately go with Whishaw, because he nails it.
Paul King and his entire creative team have gone to great lengths to treat their source material with the appropriate amount of reverence, without ever feeling hampered by it. There is clearly a ton of love and respect for Paddington and his world, but also enough of a glint of mischief in the film's eyes to make the audience feel that they picked the absolute right man for the job. It's a gorgeously designed film and feels very much like it's set in the London of Mary Poppins, a place where people are just more accepting of such absurdly unusual things like a talking bear. It's comfortable and familiar without ever feeling safe or calculated.
There's been dearth of quality family entertainment since the release of Big Hero 6 back in November, and I feel comfortable in saying that it's finally worth getting the whole family together and heading down to the multiplex. The fact of the matter is that it costs a lot of money for a family to go to a movie, and most of the films aimed at families are meant to just keep them quiet for ninety minutes without ever feeling content. Paddington works marvelously as family entertainment, and will delight every single member of your clan. There's nothing here that's new, original, or earth shattering, but sometimes, it's nice to know that rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, some filmmakers have it in their heart to produce a better version of something you've already seen before. Paddington is all that and more.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]