You might think of Paul King’s adaptation of Michael Bond’s books about an accident-prone Peruvian bear as the polar opposite of “Ted”—a combination of live-action and CGI in which the animated ursine star is as lovable and sweet-tempered as Seth McFarlane’s is nasty and foul-mouthed. “Paddington” is thoroughly charming but evinces a British sensibility that might put off American audiences—which would be a shame, since this is the best family movie of its kind since “Babe.”
Of course, King’s screenplay has had to impose a narrative on the rambling, anecdotal stories in Bond’s series. And the one he selected, typically of children’s movies nowadays, involves an evil villain anxious to capture the gentle beast for nefarious purposes, combined with a message about the meaning of family. While the scenario seems trite—and in fact is—King manages it with a light touch that makes it more than palatable. He also invests it with moments of delightfully understated deadpan humor, as well as clever cinematic allusions and slapstick episodes that at their best recall the routines Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards pulled off in the Inspector Clouseau comedies (particularly since the bear’s hat looks a lot like the inspector’s). King even manages to add a touch of pathos to the mix by referring gently to the immigrant experience—not just in terms of Paddington’s exile from his home but by reference at one point to the Kindertransport that saved Jewish children from the Nazis in the late 1930s. And to top it all off, like the icing on an elaborately-decorated cake, he clothes the picture in a lusciously colorful production design (the work Gary Williamson, with assists from art directors Justin Brown and Stephen Lawrence and set decorator Cathy Cosgrove) that, in its most intricate instances, might be mistaken for scenes from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
From the narrative standpoint King begins by adding a nice backstory for the bear, a period prologue in which an intrepid explorer named Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) finds the cub’s relatives and teaches them English—and a love of orange marmalade—before returning home. Years later, the little bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw)—not yet called Paddington, of course—lives happily with his elderly Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). But an earthquake carries off Pastuzo, and Lucy, ready for the old bear retirement home, helps her nephew stow away on a ship bound for London, where Clyde assured them they’d always find a warm welcome.
Our hero finds the city much less inviting that he expected. Not that people are taken aback by a talking bear (one of the best jokes occurs when a policeman, asked to put out an APB on a lost bear in a blue coat and red hat, remarks that it’s not much to go on)—they just ignore him. All, that is, except quirky Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), arriving at Paddington Station from a vacation trip with her far less gregarious husband Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and their children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). Though Henry, a by-the-book insurance risk assessor who sees the bear as trouble in the making, protests, Mary insists they take him home for the night, something that rather delights adventurous Jonathan but irks standoffish, easily embarrassed Judy.
It turns out that Henry’s fears weren’t misplaced, since Paddington—as Mary has named him—is quickly responsible for the flooding of the Browns’ bathroom in the first of the film’s slapstick set-pieces (a second involves his high-flying capture of a pickpocket). And it becomes apparent that Clyde will be difficult to locate, especially since the country’s scientific elite has expunged his expedition to Peru from the historical record. But with a little assist from Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), an elderly Jewish antiques dealer, and Henry’s willingness to go to great lengths to help (the English love of men in drag for comic effect comes into play here), they fasten onto a hopeful trail. Unfortunately, by that time a blonde-banged taxidermist named Millicent (Nicole Kidman) is on Paddington’s tail, determined to add him to the exhibit of stuffed unusual species in the Natural History Museum. With the help of the Browns’ snoopy, lascivious neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), she almost captures the bear, in a sequence whose Rube Goldberg properties can’t go unnoticed, and later actually does. But of course the Brown family—including live-in relative Mrs. Bird (Julie Waters), a neat-freak old biddy who correctly diagnoses the problems in the household that Paddington has been instrumental in solving—come to the rescue (cue echoes of “Mission: Impossible”), bonding in the process.
King manages an almost perfect tone for this cheerful romp, which manages to be faithful to Bond without turning Paddington into just a mild relative of Winnie the Pooh. To be sure, despite Kidman’s game turn at doing a Fraulein Nazi type, the kidnap-and-escape business has a recycled air. But even the bits of business aimed at kids’ taste for, shall we say, icky stuff is handled gingerly, as in a sequence involving Paddington’s introduction to a toothbrush, or a trip into the sewers. And the cast show real comic chops, with Bonneville replacing his “Downton Abbey” duds for a dress, Hawkins and Walters pleasantly dotty and even the kids avoiding obnoxiousness. Capaldi suffers a bit from becoming Millicent’s confederate, but Broadbent, Downie and Matt Lucas (as a corpulent cabbie) are absolutely on target, and the voice work—especially by Whishaw, whose timid tone is perfect, but also by Gambon and Staunton—is excellent.
Even those who’ve never been introduced to Bond’s bear—children and adults both—should find “Paddington” droll and delightful.