You know those moments when you look around at where you are and wonder how the hell you got there? I’m having one of those moments right now.
From the very first time I ever saw a trailer for Paddington, I was determined to avoid it like the plague. Every screening of the trailer literally made me nauseous. Sharing at least a dozen audiences with people who laughed at such disgusting lowbrow humor made me ashamed to be a movie geek. I won’t even get started on the sight of Nicole Kidman humiliating herself so badly. Moreover, it’s a family film released in January, which is practically never good news.
Then the film came out. And the critical praise has been near-unanimous. How in the almighty fuck did such a godawful looking movie get a 98 percent Tomatometer?! Well, it’s actually quite simple: Self-awareness.
To be clear, the lazy and grotesque jokes in the teaser are all here in the movie, every last wretched and painful second. The good news, however, is that all the worthless bodily humor is more or less kept to that one scene. Which means that the advertisers chose to promote this film based on its absolute worst moments, for which they should be taken out and hung.
No, the vast majority of the jokes in this movie show a remarkably self-aware nature that’s actually quite refreshing. After all, this is a movie about a talking bear that stands on its hind legs at roughly 3’6″; embracing the silly and ridiculous nature of the premise was the smartest thing that the film could possibly have done. But at the same time, the tongue-in-cheek tone is never so overt that it becomes annoying or pretentious.
Paddington himself is a fine example: He meets several people throughout the movie, but they don’t go screaming their heads off (as any sane person might do upon meeting a bear like Paddington), nor do they talk with him like nothing’s out of the ordinary. The general reaction could best be summed up as “Huh. A talking bear. You don’t see that everyday.” It’s the same kind of balance that works so well with the Muppets and their interactions with live-action people.
Director Paul King deserves a tremendous amount of credit for making this film work so well, because he succeeds in walking a lot of very difficult tightropes. The most serious moments are punctuated with just enough humor to keep the proceedings light without taking away from the stakes. The narrative is just heightened enough to work as a light and silly romp, but just grounded enough to keep us invested in the world being built. The film explores a wide variety of themes — family, identity, the balance of security vs. fun, the concept of being unique, etc. — in poignant and creative ways that register without getting overly preachy (though there are some moments in the climax that are pushing it). And again, the strategic placement of humor helps with that last point as well.
Then we have the characters. The most prominent human characters are the Brown family, which is admittedly comprised of some familiar stereotypes. The father (played by Hugh Bonneville) is a stickler who’s obsessed with rules and security, the mother (Sally Hawkins) is compassionate to a fault, the daughter (Madeleine Harris) is a teenager who’s embarrassed to be anywhere near her family, and the son (Samuel Joslin) chafes against his father’s rules as he tries to play and invent. Oh, and there’s also Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), the relative who serves as our eccentric but wise mentor figure.
There’s no denying that these characters are all thinly developed, but they’re played with such an intensely strong familial bond that it gives them a lot of charm and makes them easy to root for. Plus, they all have their own unique quirks that pay off in satisfying ways as the narrative goes on. And of course, the film is all too eager to lampshade their archetypal nature, and the actors are all too eager to make idiots of themselves in ways that simultaneously get laughs while advancing the development arcs.
As for Nicole Kidman, here playing the villain of our picture, she’s another example of how this movie walks a fine line. Kidman has absolutely no problem chewing up the scenery in the process of playing a stone-cold psychopathic bitch, but the film is always careful to deflate her image in measured doses. She always comes off as a serious threat, but never in a way that’s even close to genuinely scary. The character is just over-the-top enough that she’s fun to hate, but not so much that she becomes annoying, inept, or cartoonishly evil. It’s surprisingly well done.
Peter Capaldi also appears in a supporting role, as the Browns’ nosy neighbor. As with the other characters, this one is just oafish enough to be funny, and the film does joke at his expense every now and then, but not so much that it’s impossible to care about him. And as with the other actors, it helps a lot that Capaldi is so game for acting like a clown and humiliating himself as much as the film calls for.
But what of our title character? Well, Paddington (voiced to perfection by Ben Whishaw) is very promptly introduced as a total klutz with a nasty habit of destroying everything around him, but that’s never his fault. After all, he can’t help it if he’s clumsy, and of course he doesn’t know a thing about everyday life and customs in London. He’s a bear living among a city of humans, fresh off the boat from Darkest Peru; of course there are going to be some cultural misunderstandings.
The important thing is that Paddington always composes himself with impeccable manners (as much as he’s able), he doesn’t have an ounce of ill will toward anyone, and even his worst mistakes are always done with the best of intentions. He also takes responsibility for his mess-ups, which goes a long way. He’s just an inherently charming character, that’s all there is to it.
(Side note: Matt Lucas and Jim Broadbent both have a brief cameo roles, both of whom were great to see. Also, keep your ears open for Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton in a couple of small yet pivotal voice roles.)
The plot is refreshingly simple, which is a blessing for kids’ attention spans and 95-minute runtimes. What’s more, the plot is very heavily informed by certain iconic parts of the Paddington character, which further helps keep the story coherent and interesting. Even better, the film includes several nods to the child evacuees of WWII, which served as the real-life inspiration for Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond. Attention must also be given to the running gags, which work surprisingly well and often pay off in clever ways.
That’s not to say the plot is perfect, however: The third act is sadly overburdened with requisite moments dictated by formula, and there are a few choice moments that were too much even for such a self-aware and goofy film as this one. The “Home for Retired Bears” springs to mind, though that was apparently carried over from the source material, so whatever.
Last but not least, we have the visuals. I loved the use of colors and camera angles to reinforce the tone of “odd in a confident way.” The film also has a dollhouse, which is used as an ingenious device to examine the Browns and their everyday lives.
Paddington is so much better than the brainless cash-in that the advertising would lead us to think it is. If it wasn’t for the absolutely sterling direction of Paul King (who seriously needs to be the next in-demand family filmmaker ASAP), this film would have fallen flat a dozen times over. Yet somehow, the film’s irreverent and self-aware (in other words, British) sense of humor turns it into a charming and funny movie that’s a great time for the whole family. It’s simple enough that kids will like watching it, yet the film was clearly made with so much intelligence and care that the adults in the audience will find no problem finding something to latch onto.
I can’t believe I’m saying this — even a week ago, I would’ve thought it impossible — but I’m seriously recommending this film. It was a very pleasant surprise for me, and I think you might be pleasantly surprised as well.
For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.