Marketing is the damndest thing. It can either tune up your expectations through the roof, only for them completely to be let down. The reverse is also possible, which is what happened for me with Paddington. The trailer, which I've seen countless times, highlights in particular a scene in which the titular Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) lays waste to a charming English home by dirtying the toothbrushes with ear wax, flooding the loo, and careening down the stairs in a claw-footed tub, which stops at the feet of the family, the young boy of which mutters, "That was amazing."
It goes without saying that Paddington is meant for children; hence, the slapstick-filled TV spot with the obvious, "this is how you should be feeling, kids!" line at the end to top it all off. Contrary to what I expected, however, Paddington is not a shrill chore to sit through, but rather one of the sweetest films about family that I have ever seen. Period.
After an explorer introduces them to the wonders of culture, including the English language, snow globes, and especially marmalade, a family of bears in the "Darkest Peru" become fixated on traveling to London. An unfortunate—and tragic—earthquake forces the young bear and his Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) to flee the country, whereupon Lucy sends her nephew to London on his own in order to seek out the "warm welcome" he was promised by the explorer before he left. Instead, he finds the Brown family, who name him Paddington after the train station in which they discovered him.
There is the risk-averse father, Henry (Hugh Bonneville), the sweet mother, Mary (Sally Hawkins), sullen teenage daughter, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and the adventurous son, Jonathan (Samuel Boslin). Henry reluctantly agrees to take in Paddington long enough for them to find a government agency to take him in, but it doesn't take long for Paddington simultaneously to win the family's hearts and also inadvertently destroy their home. There is also a sinister taxidermist named Millicent (Nicole Kidman, vamping like the world is ending) who has set her sights on the little bear for reasons unknown. She flirts with the Brown's bizarre neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who agrees to spy on the Browns in order to get Paddington into Millicent's clutches.
If the previous two paragraphs weren't clear enough, there's quite a bit of story going on here. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because co-writer and director Paul King keeps everything moving at a zippy pace that never flags throughout the runtime. King uses the Paddington story as a framework both to satirize and celebrate British culture, and to bring out some wonderfully off-kilter performances from his cast. He has a visual sense that is reminiscent of Wes Anderson, right down to dollhouse view of the Brown home that is straight out of Moonrise Kingdom. But this is imitation in the best sense, because King makes the style completely his own through a fun-loving feeling of warmth. Technically, the film is a marvel, immediately convincing you that not only is that talking bear you're watching not a bunch of ones and zeroes, but a character you can come to care about almost immediately.
The screenplay—surprisingly nominated for a BAFTA last year—is the main attraction for the adults, with oodles of hilarious lines that seem cast off but are rewarding for the attentive viewer. Throughout the film's brisk 95 minute runtime, I was aware that I had a grin of varying sizes on my face the entire time. That is because this film is laugh-out-loud funny, through both its witty physical comedy and the sharp sensibility of the dialogue. Bonneville is particularly good here, transforming a role that could have been awkward and dull into a comedic tour de force that culminates in him infiltrating a prestigious Geographer's Guild while wearing drag (of course, he gets hit on by a dim-witted guard). Also great is Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, an elderly member of the family who steals the movie every time she is onscreen. Even Kidman is a blast to watch here, leveraging that frozen visage into the chilly villain she was always destined to play.
What a delight this movie is. Although I typically like to dwell in darkness, sometimes a film like Paddington comes along and makes me remember that an innocent, family-oriented film can be just as satisfying as anything else out there. Maybe it's a British thing.