Escape to the Movies
Paddington - Surprisingly Bearable

Bob Chipman | 23 Jan 2015 12:00
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Shocking, I know, but it's actually quite good. Marmalade sandwiches for everyone.

Released November 28. Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman, and Ben Whishaw. Distributed by StudioCanal.

There was a minute there at the very beginning that I was sure I was going to hate Paddington - specifically, when it opens by attempting to provide a seemingly unnecessary backstory fleshing out specific explanations for why Paddington the bear is... like he is, i.e. able to speak, committed to finding a home in London and affected with semi-anachronistic British formal manners.

I mean, really? Paddington? We really need to know the "mechanics" of how Paddington the Talking Bear came to be? I kinda "get" what was psychologically going on with the world and humanity and whatnot in that period when we thought it was this really great idea to literalize and over-explain everything about like Batman until it wasn't interesting anymore... but f***ing Paddington? Seriously?

But soon enough, the rationale behind this takes shape and it becomes clear that Paddington is up to something very new and different but also utterly in keeping with the spirit of Michael Bond's 1958 children's literary classic - far from attempting to impose some kind of unnecessary stab at depth in the proceedings, the film zeroes in on the original story's subtle but unmistakable subtext and finds it's present-day parallel. The result is a film principally designed to delight very young children but filled with an underlying sense of meaning and (importantly) a constant sense of wit and intelligence that should make it satisfying for just about everyone else... providing they're able to accept a talking bear as readily as the characters do.

The story diverges significantly from the details of the original, but the iconography remains intact: Paddington is a young bear of unusual intelligence and verbiage (for a bear) hailing from "darkest Peru" who discovered alone at a London train station by the Brown Family and brought back to their middle-class English home. In the original story, Paddington situation was a clear reflection of the experience of displaced war orphans during World War II.

But the new backstory changes this context up a bit: We learn that Paddington is a survivor from an endangered breed of talking bears who, thanks to a chance encounter with an English explorer decades ago, have absorbed and cultivated a... well, "bear-ified" approximation of proper British-ness about them. So when disaster strikes, it was only logical to send Paddington to London, where it's assumed he'll be welcomed... except the England Paddington has grown up hearing about isn't precisely the one he finds. Not in an extreme way, just "un-ideal" enough for awkward cross-cultural misunderstandings.

So, yes: it turns out the Paddington movie is a sly, stealthy thought-piece on the immigrant experience in post-Colonial British life - the story of a stranger from a far away land heavily influenced by an encounter with and absorption of English culture and values attempting to integrate into the fabric of England itself; with Paddington's unusual stature as a bear who's also a person but "not exactly" making an unmistakable parallel for foreign-descended citizens who are also Brits but "not exactly." This is heavy stuff, however confined the to the subtext it is, but it gives the otherwise slight and a touch familiar story of a family dealing with an unusual new member a soul that makes all the difference.

Not that the film dwells on any of this - it's subtext, underlining the emotional and intellectual core of a story that's still mostly about the small-scale havoc that Paddington's inquisitive nature gets the better of him. The slapstick is all very well managed and rarely feels gratuitous - yes, incredibly, even the extended sequence of Paddington accidentally destroying the Brown's bathroom. I will say I would've preferred to see a slightly more toned-down film, or at least a film with more toned-down scenes in between the comedy. So much of the film thematically is about Paddington's reactions to the eccentricities of modern London, it would've been nice to spend more time seeing him explore and react to it. I get that this is for very young children and brevity is important... but I could've done with more.

The most worrying aspect for many was the presence of Nicole Kidman as the villain of the piece, a psychotic animal-hating taxidermist with a long-term, specific obsession with talking bears. Her backstory is a little too easy to figure out given that the movie plays it for a mystery, but otherwise she fits into the narrative just fine. I'm not sure that the story really "required" a bad guy, but she does serve a purpose and her ultimate motivations tie nicely to the aforementioned metaphor at play.

The film, in total, is breezy and a bit slight in terms of actual plot mechanics, but it's awfully sweet and smart enough to stick with you well after its over. I'm as surprised as you are, folks - Paddington is a real keeper.

Bottom Line: Utterly charming. Will easily be among the best family films of the year.

Reccomendation: Kids will love it, but everyone else should be suitably charmed as well.

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