One of the more obnoxious trailers I've seen in the last six months was for “Paddington,” which looked like loud, annoying children's trash. I've sat through so many of those movies since I had my kids, and even when it's my job to review them, it is one of those things that I have to steel myself for ahead of time.
Whoever cut the trailers for “Paddington” owes writer/director Paul King a personal apology, though. I mean, I get it. I know why they didn't push the whole “From the director of 'The Mighty Boosh'” angle in the trailers, but it would have at least convinced me. I am delighted to report that King's movie is sweet and smart and silly, beautifully made from top to bottom. While my kids were entertained by it, I found it very moving and was pleased to see how well King's sense of style, on display to such lovely effect in his movie “Bunny and the Bull,” made the jump to what could have easily been just another children's film.
The movie opens with a black-and-white film, a record of an expedition to “darkest Peru” by an explorer who discovers a couple of intelligent talking bears. Right away, there's a gentle quality to the humor, and it's beautifully designed. The reason those trailers seem like they are misleading is because of the tone. There's nothing in the trailers that isn't in the movie, but from the very start of the film, there's a rhythm to it that is way more gentle and genial than most of what is aimed at kids by the studios.
Sure, there are exceptions. You've got your Pixars and your Brad Birds and there are the “How To Train Your Dragon” movies, but there is a general industry-wide attitude that seems to lean on the loud and the ugly when it comes to what we think kids will like. There are some of the broader comedy moments in the film that feel like they're almost at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, but for the most part, the film is more sly than I expected, and there is a sweetness that really sells the reality of the film.
That's actually one of the things I found most interesting about the film. It's not just the jokes or the tone or the sweetness… it's the reality. We've come a long way in terms of how CG characters are created, and it's been interesting to watch that development take place over the last twenty five years or so. I remember being fascinated by “Casper” the summer it came out, not because I thought the film was particularly good, but because Brad Silberling and ILM pushed the envelope of what could be done with a major character created by CG. Each step along the way where actual character work has been part of it and we're not just talking about special effects, I've gone out of my way to study the work and how it was shot, how it was cut, how the director treated the character. One of the biggest mistakes I've noticed, or at least one of the approaches I don't care for, is when they shoot a CG character like an effect, like it's something apart from the film and the narrative. What Paul King does so well with Paddington as a character is he shot the entire film as a live-action movie, the way he would with any actors, and Paddington himself is simply treated as one of those actors, not something different. It sounds like an easy choice to make, but it's not, and it's not instinctual. King makes it look easy here, and then the technical work behind bringing Paddington to life is so impressive that it's easy to forget that he's not actually on those sets.
After the opening in Peru, the film flashes forward by decades, when tragedy befalls those two bears and their nephew is sent away, sent to England, where the explorer assured the bears they would be met with a warm welcome if they ever made it to London. I thought the way his aunt and uncle (voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton) explained to Paddington why they were sending him to London was very sad and adult, tying it back in to what happened with kids during WWII. Ben Whishaw turns out to be an inspired choice to voice Paddington, and Hugh Bonneville turns out to be an absolutely perfect foil for him. Bonneville plays Mr. Brown, the father of two kids (Samuel Joslin and Madeline Harris), and the husband of Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), who is moved to take Paddington home when they first find him, promising that she'll find a more permanent home for him later. He's super-uptight, while she's almost pure sweetness and charm, and in a very witty flashback, we get a look at who they were before they had their first kid, and it makes them even more endearing. It also does a great job of showing why and how parenthood changes us. Bonneville doesn't play Mr. Brown the way many of the parents in modern kids films are portrayed. How many actors since “Mary Poppins” have played some riff on the neglectful-father-who-sees-the-light character arc? I can think of dozens of them, but one of the things that all of those imitations get wrong is the the actual moment of transformation for the lead character.
When I talked about “Scrooged” recently, I talked about why it was one of my favorite films built on the skeleton of “A Christmas Carol,” and it's because of the big moment at the end of the story, when Scrooge realizes what a dick he's been and is gripped by the spirit of change. “Mary Poppins” is such a home run because of the way David Tomlinson played his transformation from banking robot to doting father. He made it feel like an act of courage, and that's what change is. It's also what “Paddington” gets right. It is about all sorts of courage. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) is courageous when she opens her home to Paddington. It is a courageous act, being kind, opting for love over fear, and not everyone's wired like that. Mr. Brown has to learn it, and he has to embrace chaos. When we finally see Mr. Brown stand up to Millicent (Nicole Kidman), he does it because she is threatening something he loves, and Bonneville makes the transformation feel like it's genuine, not something motivated simply by the necessities of the plot.
Speaking of Kidman, the character she's playing is downright odd. She's a taxidermist who has a dark secret, and she is wiling to expend almost any amount of energy to get her hands on Paddington. It's not just the fact that he's a talking bear in London, either. There's something personal that drives Millicent to pursue Paddington, and while I like some of the scenes she's in, I think she's one of the film's weakest links. I'd imagine her overall box-office worth was one of the things that helped this get made, but Kidman isn't really wired for whimsy. Where Hawkins feels completely comfortable playing this tone, Kidman seems like she never quite clicks into the film completely.
One of the strange side-effects of watching the “Harry Potter” films is that the who's who of British film that was enlisted to help bring that series to life is almost a primer for kids on English actors. As soon as Paddington's uncle spoke at the start of the film, Toshi leaned over to me. “Is that Dumbeldore talking for the bear?”
“Yep.” He seemed proud of himself for catching it, and the same was true when Jim Broadbent showed up (“That's the professor who was the chair!”), and Julie Walters, who plays Mrs. Bird, the eldest member of the Brown family, almost got him to pop up out of his chair in surprise. “Dad, it's Mrs. Weasley!” I had to point out that the other adult bear, Paddington's Aunt Lucy, was voiced by Delores Umbridge, and it was the one voice that neither of the boys could act excited about considering how much they hate Delores Umbridge. Peter Capaldi plays a neighbor who is manipulated by Kidman into helping her kidnap Paddington, and I'm not sure Toshi heard much of Capaldi's dialogue because he was so thrilled to see Doctor Who in any context.
While there are definitely some scenes that I think play almost too broad, King keeps an admirable handle on the overall film, and he keeps pushing the film back towards the small and the subtle, which ultimately makes it work. Nick Urata's score serves as a lovely counterpoint to King's imagery, and there's a really lovely Caribbean band that is almost like a Greek chorus, popping up repeatedly around London and singing the subtext to what's going on. It's a great choice that underlines the way Paddington feels like an outsider, and it adds a really lovely flavor to the images of London.
“Paddington” is a model that I'd love to see Hollywood follow, a film that is absolutely aimed at mainstream family audiences but that allows a strong filmmaker to assert a real sense of style and voice. It's an excellent showcase for Paul King, for the tremendous character animation by Framestore, and for Ben Whishaw's delicate, inquisitive work as the title character, and it is one of those rare family films that actually seems to think of children as smart and full of empathy. If you take your family this weekend, you may well find yourself just as delighted by it as your children.
“Paddington” is in theaters tomorrow.