To be frank with you, I am not that familiar with Paddington Bear, which has been a very popular British character since he was created by Michael Bond in 1958. I think I saw him when I visited a Teddy bear museum a few years ago, but I have never read Bond’s books for children, so I did not know much about this famous bear until I watched “Paddington” in this week.
To the audiences like me, “Paddington” surely looks whimsical from the very beginning. The movie has not only talking bears who can speak perfect British English but also several notably unrealistic details I could not help but notice during its first 30 minutes. While nobody seems to notice how weird it is to see a talking bear in the middle of London, he is regarded more like a young foreign guy sent from abroad, and I sort of came to accept that whimsical premise during my viewing although he becomes more like an endangered animal later in the story.
The story begins with the humorous opening sequence presented in old newsreel style. Once upon a time, an adventurer named Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie) ventured into the tropical forest of Darkest Peru (it is actually Costa Rica, by the way), and he eventually encountered a bear couple living in the forest. While giving them a Basic English lesson and the first taste of marmalade, Clyde quickly befriended them, and, as going back to England several days later, he promised that he would gladly welcome them if they ever have a chance to visit London.
More than 40 years have passed now, and that bear couple in question becomes too old for travel, but they are still dreaming about going to London while taking care of their young nephew. After having that sweet taste of marmalade through their old friend Clyde, Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon) and Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) have made marmalade from the oranges grown in their forest, and we get a fun sight of how they harvest those juicy oranges and then slice and boil them to produce their favourite source of nutrition full of carbohydrates and vitamins.
Pastuzo and Lucy and their nephew have been happy together for years in their cozy home on a big tree, but their happiness is soon shattered when a sudden earthquake shakes the whole forest. Pastuzo is killed during the earthquake, and Lucy says a goodbye to her dear nephew as sending him to London and then going to the Home for Retired Bears (I guess there must be other talking bears in Darkest Peru although they do not appear in the film at all).
After spending several days on a cargo ship as a stowaway, our young bear hero, voiced by Ben Whishaw, soon finds himself at the Paddington station right after the ship arrives in London. Although he can speak English well thanks to a Basic English lesson record left by Clyde, there is no one he knows in London, and he feels disoriented and isolated as being neglected by Londoners who do not pay much attention to him.
And then he comes across the Browns when they have just arrived at the station. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonnevile) is not very willing to take care of a bear he has never met before, but Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) sincerely wants to help him, and their children, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), do not mind taking a talking bear to their home on 32 Windsor Garden.
Because his name in Bear language is rather hard to pronounce, he is called Paddington instead for an apparent reason, and Paddington begins his first days in London as temporarily staying at the Browns’ house whose interior design is as colorful and eccentric as those offbeat films by Wes Anderson. While Mr. Brown is as fastidious as your typical risk evaluator, Mrs. Brown is currently working on her latest graphic novel project, and Judy and Jonathan are smart kids with each own intellectual interests as reflected by their respective room environments. Their house is maintained by ever-reliable Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), and then we also meet Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), a cranky neighbour who is not that pleased about Paddington’s stay on the next door.
The rest of the movie revolves around Paddington’s series of misadventures while he tries to locate the address of his uncle and aunt’s old friend with some help from Mrs. Brown. Although he does not mean any harm, Paddington is often as disastrously clumsy as Inspector Clouseau, so we get a funny moment at the bathroom which is probably inspired by that memorable climax scene from Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s “Delicatessen” (1991), and then there is a big slapstick sequence on the streets initiated by Paddington’s innocent misunderstanding. Thanks to Paddington, Mr. Brown unexpectedly finds himself going through adventures he has never imagined for years, and he even comes to try something new for him during one sequence clearly influenced by Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” (1985).
Meanwhile, there is someone who wants to catch Paddington. Millicent (Nicole Kidman), a foxy taxidermist of the Natural History Museum, cannot be possibly more excited to learn that a special bear she has desired to stuff for years is now in London, and she becomes quite determined to attain her goal by any means necessary. While Millicent is not as memorably diabolical as Cruella de Vil, Nicole Kidman has a fun with her mean character, and she willingly puts herself into silliness as her character eagerly preying on Paddington.
The director Paul King, who wrote the screenplay with Hamish McColl, keeps the mood lightweight even during a rather dark climax unfolded at the Natural History museum, and his actors including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent convincingly inhabit inside the fantasy version of London as bringing some human touches to their broad characters. Although he looks different from the original version, Paddington is an endearing CGI character on the screen despite that difference, and Ben Whishaw conveys well his character’s gentle, courteous nature in his voice performance. It took some time for me to get used to its whimsical aspects, but I enjoyed “Paddington” in the end for its charming mood and fun moments, and I certainly find its furry hero cuddlier than before.