Given the inferior quality of pretty much any classic children’s book tackled by a film studio these days, it’s easy to imagine that Paddington would follow in the footsteps of The Cat in the Hat, Curious George, or Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Not helping in that perception were a handful of issues. There was the post-production departure of Colin Firth in the role of Paddington, which resulted in Ben Whishaw stepping into the role. Then there was the first trailer, which suggested a film on par with those other ones I mentioned. Finally, there was the last-minute push of the film from its Christmas release date to the middle of January.
Fortunately, the final product is not only better than these factors would suggest, but one of the best adaptations of children’s literature in recent memory. In the hands of writer/director Paul King, Paddington is a surprisingly smart and sweet film that’s targeted for younger children without pandering to them or updating the source material in a way that automatically dates the film.
The film opens in black and white, as footage of an explorer in “Darkest Peru” comes across a pair of bears who are intelligent and capable of learning English. Fast forward decades later to the bears enduring a tragedy that results in sending their nephew to London, in order to find a home in a manner similar to what abandoned children did during World War II. These sequences set the tone for the film: humorous at times, but committed to character first.
The bear finally finds someone to take him in when Mrs. Brown and her family pass him. She’s impossibly sweet, and decides to take him in for the night. She also gives him an English name, settling on Paddington. This comes at the distress of Mr. Brown, who is overly cautious when it comes to his two children and house in general. They make for an interesting pairing, and credit must be given to Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins for their approaches to the Browns.
The most surprising element is the approach taken to human reactions to Paddington: his presence is treated like a non-event. There’s no panic or shock about a small talking bear wearing a hat and asking to be adopted. It works for the film; rather than getting bogged down with reality, this approach helps the film embrace the fantasy. King seems to realize that audiences will accept a cute and charming bear who gets into mischief and has an obsession with marmalade.
That Paddington is so appealing here is the result of something I never thought I’d write: losing Colin Firth was a good thing. Ben Whishaw brings a certain amount of youth and vitality to Paddington that it’s easy to imagine would be lost with Firth in the role, no matter how good he is in anything else. Whishaw is a natural fit for the character. He’s appropriately delicate, and it’s easy to see how the Browns come to adore this bear.
The cute and charming factor extends to various points that give the film itself a childlike sense of wonder. When writing home to his aunt, Paddington describes each of the Browns, and we see the house unfold as parts of an old-fashioned dollhouse. The film also includes a few creative points to stand out for the parents, such as showing Mr. Brown before and after the birth of his children in a sequence that will resonate with those parents.
Even the film’s villain is made interesting. Millicent, a taxidermist who’s determined to stuff Paddington, is given intriguing motivation that, while not redeeming her character, at least make her actions understandable. Nicole Kidman also appears to be having fun here, and it’s good to see her in something more whimsical than normal.
As the trailer suggests, there are moments of humor that’s on the gross-out side (the toothbrush scene in particular), but there’s very little of it outside of what’s seen in the trailer, and it doesn’t hurt the film overall. Instead, Paddington is a rare live-action children’s film that treats its audience with respect regardless of age. It’s utterly charming, and more than most children’s films these days, it should prove capable of standing the test of time.