‘Paddington’: A sweet delight

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“Paddington” is derived from Michael Bond’s series of children’s books. The ursine character made its debut in the 1958 illustrated tome, “A Bear Called Paddington.” The prolific author wrote more than twenty additional titles, using the same central character. These books have been translated into thirty languages and have sold a staggering thirty million copies worldwide. The character has spawned extensive merchandising, including a stuffed bear toy, and a television series.

Suffice it to say, in his native England, Paddington is a much beloved figure, who has attained iconic status. How would he fare in the updated cinematic version?

Family films, which combine live action with CGI anthropomorphized animals, can spell disaster. Witness such fiascoes as “Garfield” and “Marmaduke.”

Anxieties about “Paddington” were further heightened when the MPAA slapped a PG on the film, rather than a more family friendly G rating. The British Board of Film Classification also gave “Paddington” a PG, initially citing supposed “sex references.” Although this was subsequently revised to “sexual innuendo,” the stigmatizing PG rating remained. A public furor ensued. What had the filmmakers done to transmute the innocuous bear into some sort of randy creature?

Despite all the fears, parents should not hesitate to bring the family to see “Paddington.” Writer-director, Paul King, captures the whimsical sensibility of the source literary works, while updating it to a contemporary setting.

The book provides only the most adumbrated back story for its titular character. In it, Paddington hails from the forests of darkest Peru, where he was raised by an aunt. She is now living in a home for retired bears.

Using a protracted prologue, the film fills in Paddington’s background. An opening faux Pathé documentary depicts a mustachioed explorer, Montgomery Clyde (Tim Down). He is hunting for any exotic species that can be shot, stuffed, and then returned to England.  However, when Clyde meets Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced respectively by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon), he befriends the pair, rather than shooting them. He leaves them with a gramophone and some records. When Montgomery returns to England, his account of semi-civilized bears, he is regarded as hokum and dismissed from the Geographer’s Guild.  Montgomery ends up running a petting zoo for children.

Forty years pass, Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo are raising their orphaned nephew (Ben Whishaw in a wonderfully sweet and subdued performance). As a consequence of listening to the records left behind by Montgomery, they all speak with pronounced English accents. They have rather refined tastes, which cause them to routinely prepare orange marmalade. When a cataclysmic earthquake strikes the forest, Uncle Pastuzo is killed. Aunt Lucy convinces her nephew to stowaway aboard an ocean liner and head for England. There, she hopes he will meet Aunt Lucy’s former friend, Montgomery Clyde.

The young bear, wearing a distinctive red hat and duffel coat, wanders to the Paddington Railway Station. There, people hustle and bustle past this ectopic bear, oblivious to his presence.

As nighttime approaches, the Browns, a family of four, arrive at the station. The benevolent Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Blue Jasmine”), notices the bear and names him Paddington after the station. She convinces her reluctant husband (Hugh Bonneville from “Downton Abbey”), to allow the bear to stay overnight at their home. Their dour tweener daughter, Judy (Madeline Harris) abhors the motion of having a strange bear in the household. However, her younger brother, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) is thrilled by the arrival of a potential new playmate.

To provide some narrative tension, the film creates a deliciously snarling villainess, Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who happens to be a taxidermist. Millicent realizes that it would be quite a coup for her if she can kidnap and stuff Paddington, then donate the stiffed specimen to the Natural History Museum. Millicent does not appear in any of Bond’s books. However, she would have made a worthy adversary for another Bond, agent 007.

Heretofore, Paul King, has principally worked on British television show, “The Mighty Boosh.” He has only a single feature, the semi-animated “Bunny and the Bull,” to his credit. Despite his limited filmmography, with “Paddington,” King has crafted a wildly inventive film.

The text of this film is dominated by Paddington’s misadventures. Although this bear is good-hearted, he demonstrates a penchant for unintentionally creating mayhem wherever he goes. Without ever becoming preachy, the film conveys a message. Mrs. Brown, endearingly portrayed by Sally Hawkins, is a font of kindness and tolerance. She is a marked contrast to her husband, who initially recoils at the prospect of inviting Paddington into the family’s domicile.

Mrs. Hawkins cites the historical precedent of World War II, when British schoolchildren were sent to the countryside to escape the Nazi air bombings. They were sheltered by total strangers. Coincidentally, another current film, “The Woman in Black” uses that resonant episode to propel the plotline.

London is depicted as a home to refugees. Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), is a kindly Jewish antique dealer, who escaped Nazi ant-Semitism aboard the Kindertransport. Lord Kitchener, a five-piece Caribbean band, appear as buskers intermittently throughout the film, as they play various calypso tunes. This includes a spirited rendition of “London is the Place for Me.” This reflects the changing face of London’s populace as it absorbs immigrants from the numerous third-world counties.

Paddington” is a visually stunning, courtesy of the contributions by cinematographer Erik Wilson; set designer, Gary Williamson; and costume designer, Lindy Hemming. The film is chock full of elaborate contraptions and extraordinary visual detailing. It is as if Rube Goldberg and Wes Anderson have collaborated on a film. Early on, we see the machinery that the bears have designed to produce their favorite delectation, marmalade. Later, we see young Jonathan Brown constructing all sorts of mechanical gizmos. The attentive viewer will be rewarded with little details. As the explorer and his expedition  traipse through the jungle, one of the porters carries a large grandfather clock. When Paddington is temporarily adopted by the Browns, the flickering light above the railway office’s Lost & Found Department switches from the former to the latter. A scene of a bathroom accident and another of Paddington riding on a skateboard through Notting Hill in pursuit of a pickpocket are also inspired.

“Paddington” is a charming little gem of a film, which can be relished by children and adults alike.

“Paddington” ***1/2 PG (for mild action and rude humor) 95 minutes

A screen capture from a trailer to the film "Paddington" at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-d-V9jXYDE

A screen capture from a trailer to the film “Paddington” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-d-V9jXYDE

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year, he welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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