So, a small brown illegal immigrant — he doesn't even have a passport — sneaks over the border into the United Kingdom ... and is instantly welcomed into the home of a quintessentially English family in London, complete with a kooky elderly kinswoman of unspecified relation and a house that is the epitome of storybook chic.
And it is adorable.
Paddington is, in fact, so cute and witty and compassionate and bittersweet and just the right little bit of snarky and positively downright altruistic that you will cry tears of joy from the perfection of it. Indoctrinating the kiddies to look kindly upon illegal immigrants? What is the world coming to?!
Now, I have no real childhood emotional attachment to the bear called Paddington: We had some of author Michael Bond's books around when I was a kid, but I don't recall any tremendous love for them. And I was more than a little worried about the potential for CGI creepiness in dropping a cartoon talking animal into a movie that is otherwise live action. (It's OK for Gollum to be creepy, but not a marmalade-loving ursine of childlike naiveté and wonder.) But while, as a technical achievement, Paddington is nothing less than a triumph, what completely won me over was the film's gentle, effortless charm.
Ben Whishaw gets Paddington's voice just right, and the movie wouldn't have worked without the absolutely correct actor bringing him to life. Yet it also wouldn't have worked without the perfect balance of fantasy and silliness buoying the whole endeavor, either. Screenwriter and director Paul King finds that perfect balance: The talking bear from Darkest Peru may be a novelty in a big, cosmopolitan city, but he is accepted by one and all ... even by the villain, Nicole Kidman's evil taxidermist, who wants to catch Paddington and stuff him.
The crux of the tale revolves not only around Paddington's attempts to get comfortable in a "strange cold city" that is not as welcoming as he expected it to be. There's also the plight of Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), the stodgy patriarch of the family who takes him in, who needs to learn how to relax a little and not worry so much about having a rambunctious bear around the house. (Mrs. Brown, aka Sally Hawkins in full-on-manic-pixie-dream-mom-Sally-Hawkins mode, will have something to do with this.)
The film also offers a huge dollop of social satire, sending up both harmless British quirks — Paddington learns how to talk about the rain in London — and some of the more insidious ones. There is a gentle, and very funny, skewering of British colonial attitudes that comes via Paddington's search for the English explorer who once visited Darkest Peru and introduced the bear's family to the joys of marmalade.
King also drops in a slew of tiny details that make for a rich cinematic environment that will reward multiple viewings. I'm sure I missed tons of them, but the ones I did notice — the "foot of the stairs"; the ominous posters in the Tube station during Paddington's trepidatious first foray on mass transit — make me keen to see what else I can find.
Oh, and there's also some heartstopping peril. Seriously, I cannot recall the last time I held my breath worrying about a character onscreen like this. And certainly not a CGI bear.
Are you sold yet? No? The cast is an Anglophile's dream, and also features Peter Capaldi as the Browns' mean neighbor; Julie Walters as the quirky Mrs. Bird; Jim Broadbent as an antiques dealer who helps Paddington in his quest to find the explorer; and Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as the voices of Paddington's aunt and uncle back in Darkest Peru.
This is sheer hilarious delight. Do not miss it. You don't even need to bring a kid with you.