Written and Directed by Paul King
Starring Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman, and Julie Walters
Within the past year, there have been two feature films made based on popular TV shows from my childhood: Postman Pat and Paddington. I watched both shows on a regular basis as a young child.
By all accounts, Postman Pat: The Movie is a horrendous mess. Rather than crafting a cozy story dealing with fairly minimal stakes as the TV show did (memorable episodes include “Postman Pat and the Foggy Day” and “Postman Pat and the Blustery Day”) the movie version decided it needed something considerably more bombastic, and so the plot apparently revolves around Pat auditioning for Britain’s Got Talent. The reviews were awful. I haven’t seen it and I never will. Neither will my kids.
When the initial publicity shots for Paddington came out around Halloween last year, I braced myself for a similar disappointment. Creepy Paddington quickly became a meme. But then the movie came out, and it received glowing reviews from UK critics. A month or so later, it arrived in the US, and I can now confirm: it is an absolute delight. Perhaps one of the best family films I have ever seen.
That might seem like hyperbolic high praise, but it is warranted. This is not just a decent “family film,” it is a superbly crafted film, period. And while it is targeted at families with young children, there is just as much for adults to enjoy about it as their young sprogs.
For those unfamiliar with Paddington, the basic gist is that he is a small bear from Darkest Peru. The Brown family find him lost and alone at a London train station with a tag around his neck that reads “Please take care of this bear.” They name him after said station, and take him in as a member of their family. Paddington has a fondness for marmalade sandwiches, and often wears a blue duffel coat and red felt hat. His adventures usually have minimal plot and instead revolve around such everyday activities as having a bath, or doing a spot of DIY.
Clearly, a feature film would require something significantly more to hang 90-plus minutes on, and so a much more expansive plot has been developed. In the movie, we get to see some backstory to Paddington’s life in Darkest Peru, his marmalade addiction, and why he makes the journey to London in the first place.
There is also an antagonist in the Cruella de Vil mold; a taxidermist from the British Museum who wants to catch Paddington and stuff him. However, there is relatively little emphasis on this good-versus-evil subplot, and it generally tows the line to the non-threatening tone of the film overall.
Kids will love Paddington’s charming slapstick antics. During one early set piece he encounters toothbrushes for the first time. Puzzled as to what they’re for, he cleans his ears with them. Then he tastes it – and tries to wash out the taste by drinking toilet water. Then, after he gets his head caught in the toilet seat, he pulls the cistern off the wall and floods the bathroom. The sequence culminates in Paddington riding the bathtub down the spiral staircase and into the kitchen on a torrent of water.
As goofy and as over the top as this might seem, it was played in a harmless, and genuinely affable way. There are several such sequences in the film.
I’ll admit, even as an adult I found it highly amusing. But there is a whole other level to the film’s humor intended exclusively for adults. That doesn’t mean the sort of crude humor that other kids’ films hope will fly over the heads of young tykes, however, but rather properly “grown up” gags that had me laughing out loud on a number of occasions. (Some examples: A tourists’ guide to London claims the locals have over 140 words for rain, while a Chinese for business audio tape nonchalantly includes the translation for “I have been included of insider trading and require legal representation.”)
As a screenwriter too, I found plenty to admire in the film. The acrobatic display of setups and callbacks throughout are a thing of beauty. There are also occasional jaunts into flashback and fantasy which (although sometimes a little jarring) are mostly delightful asides which provide an opportunity for a little extra humor, add an additional layer of understanding to proceedings, and/or serve to avoid losing the attention of any ADD-addled kids more used to rapid fire cuts and explosions.
Visually, the movie is in sharp contrast to the sparsely colored animated TV version I grew up with. All the characters wear brightly-colored clothes, and the Browns’ live in a brightly-colored house complete with a mural of a tree in the hallway which loses its leaves, and then sprouts blossoms to reflect the dominant emotions of the story as it progresses.
Setting the film in Notting Hill also lends plenty of naturally-occurring color and contrast that (American audiences in particular) might find at odds with the stereotypical grey, rain-soaked landscape they may have expected of a British film set in London. Instead, the houses are brightly painted different colors, and an ever-happy calypso band is serves as a sort of upbeat Greek chorus throughout the film. Indeed, there have already been numerous articles written on the film’s pro-immigration political stance.
As a Brit, I love just how very British this film is, though as noted above, perhaps not the stereotypical sort of British that global audiences might expect. Mashed up with the colorful mise-en-scene is both a tweeness and a rigorous attention to detail that would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. The characters behave in a distinctly British “proper” way and there is quite a bit made about the importance of having good manners, yet the film can in no respects be accused of being fusty.
Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, and Julie Walters in particular breathe extraordinary life and energy into their respective characters as the three adult leads – and the film gives each their own extended sequence in the spotlight. And boy do they shine! Particularly memorable are the scenes involving Bonneville going undercover as a cleaning lady, and Walters’ participation in a pensioner-versus-security guard drinking contest.
The humor on display here is very wry; during a chase scene a fleeing pickpocket’s satnav gives the instruction “bear left” as he looks out of his left-side window to see Paddington pursuing him. I can’t remember the last big screen comedy that had such a lethal combination of timing, delivery, wit, and execution.
This is a very funny film, and a thoroughly British film to boot. Though there are certainly some jokes at Britons’ expense, they are in good humor and entirely self-deprecating. The sort of jokes that would cause Britons to laugh louder and longer at than anyone else.
Other critics have awarded this film the highest ratings, and it is hard to disagree. Paddington is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable, delightful, and best-executed films in recent memory. It is destined to become a classic.
I absolutely adored every moment of it, and wholeheartedly agree with my son’s verdict upon leaving the cinema: “I want to see it again now.”