Paddington Bear. How well we know him. He's cuddly, he's loyal, he's sensitive. He's well-traveled — but loves to stay home, too. And he can whip up a mean homemade marmalade.
As Mom would say, what's not to love?
And one can say precisely the same of the engaging new "Paddington," written and directed by Paul King and based of course on the famous 1958 book by Michael Bond. It doesn't try to be too clever. Or too sweet. Or too dark, for that matter, though there's plenty of mischief, thanks to Nicole Kidman, channeling her inner villainess.
And it works. For parents looking for a film that'll please them and their kids in equal measure, "Paddington" is — as Goldilocks would say in that other bear story — just right.
The ingenuity in King's approach — at a few points, his technique even recalls Wes Anderson — is apparent from the start. We knew that Paddington (that's not his name, at first) came from "darkest Peru," but King's version shows us the backstory in entertaining fashion. In the Peruvian jungle, a friendly British explorer befriends a bear family and introduces them to certain veddy veddy English inventions — like marmalade. When he leaves, he tells them they'd always be welcome in London.
Years later, when an earthquake destroys the bears' home, orphaned Paddington (well, that's not his name quite yet) decides to set off for London on a boat, leaving his elderly aunt (Imelda Staunton) behind at a retirement home. He brings with him only a suitcase filled with jars of marmalade, the hat the explorer left behind, and a tag around his neck: "Please look after this bear."
Arriving in London, though, our bear (entirely computer generated, and sensitively voiced by Ben Whishaw) finds people aren't that welcoming — it's hard to even get noticed, let alone immediately adopted and taken to a nice home. Luckily, the Brown family, alighting at Paddington Station, does notice him. The rather uptight Mr. Brown (a delightful Hugh Bonneville, whom most of us know from "Downton Abbey") isn't keen to take him in for the night, but the two kids are, as is their warm-hearted mum (an equally delightful Sally Hawkins.)
Once at home — just for one night, Mrs. Brown promises Mr. Brown, while they help find the explorer friend from long ago — Paddington (so named after the station) proceeds to inadvertently cause a giant flood in the bathroom. This does not please Mr. Brown, but will surely delight any kids in the audience — especially when the bear's head gets stuck in the toilet. Who doesn't love a good toilet flood scene?
As the search for the explorer continues, trouble rears its head. It seems that an evil museum taxidermist named Millicent (Kidman, with short, blunt-cut blonde hair and an unhinged demeanor) has designs on Paddington. She doesn't want to give him a home — she wants to stuff him, and store him in a glass case. Just why will become clear soon enough.
Meanwhile, all the Browns are falling for Paddington, including the all-knowing housekeeper (Julie Walters). Even the stuffy old Mr. Brown — there are clear echoes of the dad in "Mary Poppins" here — comes round, and becomes one of Paddington's biggest defenders. As the showdown with Millicent reaches its climax, it is Mr. Brown who will utter the film's warm, cuddly and very relevant message: Families aren't only about who you're born to. They're about who you love.
And movies like this are easy to love, too.
"Paddington," a Weinstein Company release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "mild action and rude humor." Running time: 89 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.