Even before they replaced the lead voice actor and punted the U.S. release date from December to January, the odds weren’t exactly in favor of “Paddington.” After all, so many charming children’s storybooks have had the delight squeezed out of them after being elongated into a three-act structure on the way to the big screen. (Remembering the “Cat in the Hat” movie still brings on an involuntary shudder.)
Luckily, “Paddington” has proven to be as tireless as its lead character, making the transition with genuine wit and emotion. There are plenty of laughs — and nothing that goes over a kid’s head to an adult funny bone is smutty or smarmy — and the sentiment never feels strained or artificial. I won’t deny getting a little choked up when they give the bear his famous blue duffle coat in a moment of familial love.
We meet our titular hero (voiced by Ben Whishaw, “Skyfall”) in “darkest Peru” where, years earlier, a British explorer befriended the bear’s aunt and uncle, Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), introducing them to such English pleasures as teatime and orange marmalade. Upon his departure, the explorer told Lucy and Pastuzo that they’d be welcome in London, and so when their forest home is destroyed, Lucy sends Paddington off on an ocean voyage, armed only with the explorer’s hat, a suitcase full of marmalade, and a tag that says “Please look after this bear. Thank you.”
He makes it as far as London’s Paddington train station, and he’s prepared to settle in for the night when he’s invited home by the kindly Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) over the objections of the obsessively safety-minded Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville). They name him “Paddington” and set out to help him find the explorer even after the bear nearly and quite inadvertently destroys their home. (The trailers would have you believe that the film is wall-to-wall slapstick mayhem, but writer-director Paul King, adapting Michael Bond’s beloved book series, doesn’t go overboard on our hero’s mishaps in the human world.)
As Paddington finds himself growing closer to the Browns and their two young children, he becomes the target of Museum of Natural History taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman, in “The Golden Compass” blonde ice-queen mode), who has her own reasons for wanting to stuff and mount Paddington. It should be noted that one of the film’s greatest achievements is working in a genuinely threatening villain, plus passing references to the Blitz (Paddington’s tag) and even the Kindertransport (Jim Broadbent’s antiques dealer recalls being a young refugee) without ever losing its tone of childlike whimsy.
King, a veteran of the oddball comedy series “The Mighty Boosh,” keeps the laughs coming, from clever wordplay (the side of Kidman’s van reads “TAXI” until she slides the door shut to reveal “DERMIST”) to absurd visual sight gags, without ever losing touch with the characters: all four members of the Brown family have their individual quirks and strengths, and we get to see how Paddington insinuates his way into all their lives, for the better. It certainly helps that the film boasts such a great cast of comic heavyweights, including Matt Lucas, Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”), and Julie Walters.
“Paddington” manages to be such a sweetly funny concoction that you might find yourself hungering for further big-screen adventures. And maybe a spot of orange marmalade.