Paddington, British literature's lovable anthropomorphic bear named after the train station where he was found, has always been a funny sort of fellow. For nearly 60 years, Michael Bond's creation has enjoyed harmless adventures with his adopted Brown family in London, noshing on marmalade and allowing his good manners to point the way when his small brain can't. His endearing qualities — politeness and a need to understand the world through trial and error — are the sort of subtle quirks that don't always survive the transition to broad family films. Just ask Paddington's spiritual cousins Stuart Little or The Cat in the Hat.
Parts of the new live-action film Paddington look like the typical desperate, overly modernized kiddie fare. There's a large dollop of unfortunate frenetic slapstick with skateboards, dogs, cross-dressing and an overplayed James Brown song. But aside from the bits that practically scream "studio-mandated," director Paul King invokes the spirit and charm of Paddington's personality. Even when he's getting into outsized mishaps, the little bear from Darkest Peru always means well.
Ben Whishaw (he was the "new Q" in Skyfall) voices the plucky young critter, a last-minute replacement for Colin Firth, who dropped out of the film mere months before its release in an amicable split. This was likely for the better. As gifted an actor as Firth is, the King's Speech star seems a bit too regal for Paddington, who after all is supposed to resemble a curious, clumsy child. The higher-voiced Whishaw gives the small fur ball an unforced innocence and vulnerability.
Whishaw is rounded out by an excellent cast of Important Actors Being Silly, including the always-effervescent Sally Hawkins as the Brown clan's dotty matriarch; Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as the stuffy dad who sputters safety statistics like "Thirty-four percent of pre-breakfast accidents involve banisters!"; and Jim Broadbent as the kindly antiques shop owner Mr. Gruber, a fellow immigrant who shares a lovely, unspoken understanding with his new bear friend. Bond's original stories didn't have much in the way of outright awful people, but it takes superhuman Studio Ghibli strength for a children's movie to come into this world without a villain. So Nicole Kidman dutifully dons an icy blond bowl cut to play Millicent, a nasty museum curator who wants Paddington stuffed. Between Millicent and the utterly dull third Night At The Museum film, the London Natural History Museum is having a rough time at the movies.
It's a pleasant surprise that Paddington has a good deal of style and wit, as in a Wes Anderson-lite sequence where the bear envisions every room of the Brown household as a dollhouse model. Later, a flashback shows the Brown parents, expecting their first child, entering the delivery room as motorcycle-riding thrillsters but leaving as paranoid worrywarts in an SUV — parenting distilled in one single, brilliant gag. And not to get all political on this unassuming bear, but it's even more of a pleasant surprise that the film doesn't disguise its hero's citizenship status. We see Paddington making his long and arduous journey from Darkest Peru to London as a stowaway once his aunt and uncle can no longer care for him, entering the U.K. without his papers, and pleading for kind benefactors by the train tracks.
This isn't even a parable of immigration — in the context of the film, Paddington is a literal flesh-and-blood immigrant. Ironically it's his CGI presence, with that prickly fur, those dark red eyes, and that tiny stature, that accentuates how the bear remains visually orphaned from his adopted surroundings.
King and co-screenwriter Hamish McColl bring the timeliest themes of Bond's original stories to the forefront in an effective yet understated manner. When the posh urbanite family first spies the bear sitting by the tracks, with little more to his name than good manners and a cardboard sign ("Please look after this bear. Thank you"), Mr. Brown's first instinct is to ignore him. It's only once his family has helped demonstrate Paddington's good nature and inherent blamelessness that he's able to care for the bear as he would his own children. Kindness wins out in the end, naturally, but a specific and prescient form of kindness rather than the glib, one-size-fits-all brand usually seen in children's movies. That, at least, deserves a marmalade sandwich.