Could ‘Paddington’ turn into a surprise family flick hit?

Perception is not always reality. Especially in the movie business.

Ever since the first trailer for “Paddington” arrived last March, eyebrows were raised. Would this CG-animated-live action hybrid do Michael Bond's beloved literary bear justice? Many thought the teaser looked more “Smurfs” or (perish the thought) “Garfield” than in the vein of a well-regarded “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It didn't matter that “Harry Potter” and “Gravity” producer David Heyman was shepherding the production; this was a movie that ended up having one bad publicity crisis after another.  

When word came down that Ben Wishaw was replacing none other than Colin Firth as the Peruvian bear's voice, that raised a red flag. When the film's U.S. distributor, The Weinstein Company, decided to move “Paddington” out of its longstanding Christmas Day opening to a January 15 bow, most media smelled trouble. Moreover, many Brits were appalled when the movie earned a PG rating instead of a U (the equivalent of the MPAA's G). Imagine everyone's surprise then when the first reviews arrived this week and they were, um, good!

“Paddington” is hitting theaters in the U.K. on Nov. 28 and the trades and British press weighed in very positively. Former HitFixer Guy Lodge reviewed the film for Variety, calling it a “bright, breezy and oh-so-British romp.”  Robbie Collin of the Telegraph gave it 4 out of 5 stars saying it was “a total delight.” Xan Brooks of the Independent gave “full credit” to the filmmakers for marrying “Bond”s antique conceit to a high-concept story” and loves Nicole Kidman “gleefully channelling the spirit of Cruella De Vil.” The Hollywood Reporter's Leslie Felperin called it “quite charming, thoughtful and as cuddly as a plush toy, albeit one with a few modern gizmos thrown in.” Granted, there have been some mixed reviews, but it currently stands at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a 68 grade on Metacritic (higher than “Mockingjay,” mind you).  

Those notices mean “Paddington” could be a major hit in the UK, but it certainly needs to work stateside if Studio Canal is going to make up its reported $50 million budget. And, in hindsight, it's easy to see why TWC moved the picture out of the Christmas frame. First off, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is going to be a monster no matter what critics think. Second, “Night of the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” already has a built-in fan base and could easily match its predecessor's $54.1 million opening. Third, Sony Pictures has already been spending a bundle marketing their own family flick, “Annie,” which has its own brand recognition and notable stars. Fourth, Disney's “Into the Woods” may skew older, but the company brand will still position it as a family musical for all ages.

Three of those films also have PG ratings. Throwing in a fifth family flick – even one skewing significantly younger – just didn't make proper business sense no matter what studio is behind it. Toss in the film's winter setting and an Easter break bow just doesn't make sense, either (nor does going up against DreamWorks Animation's “Home.”) It doesn't matter the quality of the film, sometimes you just need to pick a date that lets you breathe. Enter January.

You can make the argument TWC is still going to have a very competitive marketplace on its hands opening against “Blackhat,” “The Wedding Ringer” (which will pull in a ton of teenagers) and an expanding “American Sniper,” but with the only “new” family picture, TWC will take their chances. Because if the terribly reviewed “The Nut Job” from Open Road Films can pull in $64.2 million on pretty much the same date then the classy “Paddington” certainly has a chance at matching that or making even more.

“Paddington” opens nationwide on Jan. 16.