There are few characters quite like Paddington Bear in British pop culture. Based on a series of picture books by Michael Bond, Paddington is instantly recognizable with his blue duffle coat, big red hat and insatiable appetite for marmalade sandwiches. Now the trouble attracting bear has made his way to the big screen in this adaptation from the producers of the Harry Potter series.
An explorer meets a species of intelligent bears whilst in darkest Peru. After introducing them to all things British, the explorer leaves, promising the bears that should they ever come to London there will be a warm welcome for them. Many years later a young bear (voiced by Ben Wishaw) travels to England in search of a new home and ends up staying temporarily with the Brown family, consisting of the obsessively safety conscious Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), warm and hippy-ish Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins), perpetually embarrassed teen Judy, enthusiastic inventor Jonathan, and their elderly relative/cleaner Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). As the newly named Paddington (he’s named the train station where he was found) begins adjusting to London life being very different from what he expected, sinister taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) begins a search of her own for the bear.
One of the biggest problems with something like this is the possibility of the humour and story being too specific and not translating to an international audience. Thankfully, that does not apply here as Paddington is funny, charming, adorable, and really wins you over with its emphasis on family love. There are plenty of madcap sight gags for the kids (i.e. the set-piece involving a disastrous bath time) and also some genuinely well-written and clever dialogue for older viewers (unsurprising then Emma Thompson did an uncredited touch-up on the script). The cast is all spot-on as well. Wishaw’s vocal performance gets across the right level of childish innocence, but also a well-spoken properness that just feels right. Hawkins is delightful, and Peter Capaldi is quite amusing as the nosy man next door who is convinced that a bear moving in will bring down the neighbourhood. Plus, where else will you see a film this year that features the Earl of Grantham dressed as a cleaning lady?
The key thing that works about the film is its combination of whimsical elements (keep an eye on the tree painted in the Brown’s house) and something oddly relevant. Paddington is both deliberately evocative of World War 2 evacuees, as well as the lonely child on a train platform with a label round his neck. But it also works as a link to modern multi-cultural London and what it’s like to move so far away from the home that you knew. Also, as a Londoner, I greatly enjoyed the little riff on the usual montage of somehow driving past every single major landmark in the city.
Paddington is a fun and enchanting family movie that the whole family can enjoy in the same vein as something like Mary Poppins. Please look after this bear. You won’t regret it.