January films are often rather ghastly. Whether they be comedy, action, or otherwise, chances are you will have an unfortunate time in the theater when seeing a film in January, unless you are seeing the awards contenders from the previous year. Family films are also quite the crapshoot, with most of them being rather insufferable. Combine the two together, and you are headed for the disaster. So, when the swath of positive reviews of Paddington started to come out, I was a bit shocked. You have to be joking! But as it turns out, this story about a bear becoming part of a middle-class British family is exactly the movie I wanted to see.
The bear I speak of is the titular Paddington (his “bear name” is a little too hard to pronounce), voiced by the charming Ben Whishaw. Decades earlier, his aunt (Imelda Staunton) and uncle (Michael Gambon) were visited in the jungles of Peru by a British explorer (Tim Downie). He teaches the two bears the wonders of London and, more importantly, marmalade. Jump to present day, where Paddington is living with his aunt and uncle. Their home is destroyed, and the aunt sends Paddington off to London for a better life, where he meets the Browns who take him in until he finds a proper home.
The dynamic of the family and how they incorporate Paddington into their lives is nothing new. The father (Hugh Bonneville) is against it from the beginning. The mother (Sally Hawkins) is loving and determined to help. The son (Samuel Joslin) thinks the bear is cool. And the daughter (Madeline Harris) does not want to be seen as weird by her friends for having a bear. You can predict how Paddington will affect each and every one of them.
Because this feels familiar, the characters need to be engaging, specific, and funny for this film to work. Luckily, screenwriters pack Paul King and Hamish McColl pack in as much wit as they possibly can. Yes, there are the big comic set pieces, which are pleasing, but it is the small one-liners, the throwaways, and the wordplay that had me laughing loudly in a theater I was the only person in (the best way to see a movie). Hugh Bonneville, in particular, has a field day with playing the silliest of lines completely straight. It is a comic performance someone like Leslie Nielsen made popular, and it never gets old.
There is more conflict to the story, namely in the form of a taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman hell bent on stuffing the rare Peruvian bear. This was my least favorite section of the film, even if Kidman was having a lot of fun. The conflict just felt a little forced. I was much more interested in the day-to-day of a bear acclimating to normal London society. Thankfully, that stuff is so charming and funny it makes up for the kind of boring villain. Although, Peter Capaldi as a neighbor of the Browns conspiring with Kidman gets in some laughs, so it is not totally wasted.
What I respected tremendously about the movie is that Paddington is an active character. He has a goal and tries various things to achieve it. So often in these animal films, they are just used to be cute and sell a toy. Paddington is an actual character and a proper protagonist. You want him to get what he is searching for and know his true home is with the Browns. That is a rarity in children’s cinema today. It was refreshing.
The thing about a film like this is I want to talk about all the gags I loved, which would be difficult because there were so many. I would say about 80-85% of the jokes landed here, which is an extremely high rate. There are some missteps, mainly in the bigger set pieces, like a bathroom flooding scene — How many times have we seen that? — but when you have a scene where Paddington is taking escalator signs as literally as possible, you kind of forget the duller moments.
It is not a perfect film by any means. It does feel awfully familiar, but when a story we have all seen countless times is executed very well, it deserves the acclaim it has been receiving. In a January where I have given a D and Brad has given two Fs already, seeing an immensely charming film like Paddington is such a relief. It is a shame they decided to release it just as kids are going back to school from winter break. This is something everyone in the family can enjoy, both as a comedy and a rather heartwarming family story. A very nice surprise.