The Thing About Paddington

There’s a moment in the film Paddington that you should recognize from your typical modern family film. You should recognize it, but it’s not quite what you’re used to.

The Umbrella Chase

Early in the film, there’s a chase scene in which Paddington crosses paths with a thief. Many live-action “kids’ movies” have similar set pieces, but few handle them the way this film does. The chase doesn’t rush. It unfolds. It takes its time to reveal its delights. It trusts its audience. It’s not built on mayhem, but on something we don’t see as often as I’d like: a sense of surprise and wonder and charm and joy.

And that’s the beauty of the film.

Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington was first published in 1958, so by now most of us are familiar with the story. A bear from Darkest Peru, with the voice of Ben Whishaw and a taste for marmalade sandwiches, finds his way to England, where the Brown family (led by go-to patriarch Hugh Bonneville) take him in. Misadventures ensue. The bonds of family are built, tested, and ultimately affirmed.

Simple enough. But a story is always in the telling of it, and director Paul King (working from the script he wrote with Hamish McColl) tells this story with expected heart and unexpected whimsy.

There’s a strong element of magic realism to Paddington. Nobody in this world is at all surprised to find a walking, talking bear in their midst; indeed, his “worrying marmalade habit” is far more remarkable to them. When Paddington accidentally finds himself a celebrity, it’s because of his actions, not his existence. King and McColl have crafted a reality where the wondrous is not merely possible, it’s accepted, if not taken for granted. And it’s ultimately embraced.

Paddington and the Browns

And that acceptance of wonder carries over through the entire film. It grounds the performances, including Sally Hawkins as the kind Mrs. Brown; Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin as the children; Julie Walters as the near-obligatory wise housekeeper; Jim Broadbent as the shopkeeper who finds a kindred spirit in the lost bear; and a pre-Doctoral Peter Capaldi as the grumpy neighbour (true, Mr. Curry’s hardly a stretch for the man who gave us Malcolm Tucker, but he still commits and delivers as he always does). Even the film’s faux-Cruella, Nicole Kidman’s bitter taxidermist, is allowed a small measure of humanity.

But as much fun as the performances are, it’s in the visuals that Paddington really shines. I don’t mean the CGI that brings the bear to life, though it’s far better than you might fear. I mean all the little touches that King uses to tell the story. There are flourishes and effects throughout the film that don’t serve the plot, but serve the mood (pay close attention to the painted walls inside the Browns’ house, and to the dollhouse in the attic, and especially to the random calypso band). They add another layer of whimsy to the story, another layer of magic, and help elevate the film into something more than a generic family flick.

(Digression alert: if Steven Moffat doesn’t give Paul King an episode of Doctor Who, he is MISSING OUT.)

Maybe Paddington isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. But it’s not really trying to be. It’s just trying to tell a story, to have fun with it, and most of all to be graceful and kind about it. And so it succeeds beautifully. See it with your kids. See it yourself. See it in a theater if you can – the film deserves an audience.

Thanks as always for following along. Until next time…

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