Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
In this charming adaptation of Michael Bond’s children’s books the Brown family is passing by a young hat-wearing bear sitting on his suitcase in London’s Paddington Station. It is Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), the mother who embodies the qualities recommended above by the author of Colossians. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville, of Downton Abbey) does not want to stop, fearing that the bear is “probably trying to sell something.” Nor, surprisingly, do the children Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). Their mother is far more “like a child,” to use Christ’s words, than they are. Maybe it is because the little bear is sitting just outside the train station’s “Lost and Found” center, but stop she does, and when she learns that he hales from Peru, she insists that they take him home with them “for just a night,” until they can find a proper shelter for him.
“Home” is just what Paddington is looking for. In the origin’s section that begins the film we see newsreel footage of Montgomery Clyde, an explorer with a moustache (Tim Downie) in “”Darkest Peru,” who discovers a family of bears, rare in that they are able to learn the Queen’s English and become addicted to the explorer’s beloved marmalade. The story jumps forward several decades, and Paddington is gathering oranges for his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) for the making of a new batch of marmalade. The explorer has long since returned to London, after he tells his bear friends that if ever they come to the city they will receive a warm welcome and easily find a home—“They will not have forgotten how to treat a stranger.” An earthquake destroys the bears’ home. With shades of Bambi, Uncle Pastuzo is killed amidst the falling debris! Aunt Lucy prepares her nephew for the long voyage to London, taking him to a seaport and hiding him in a lifeboat of a cargo ship. She is too old for such a trip, she tells him, her place awaiting her in the home for retired bears.
Thus Paddington finds himself in the London train station, a tag around his neck “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” I noticed that all of the British reviewers mention that Michael Bond’s original book was written in 1958 when the memory of children, all wearing similar name tags around their necks, who at the beginning of WW 2 were evacuated to the country to escape the Nazi’s nightly bombing raids on the city. The tag also reminded me of the wonderful 2000 documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, chronicling how ten thousand Jewish children with tags from Germany were welcomed into British homes during a too-brief nine months just before the outbreak of the Second World War. This may be a family film, but it does far more than just entertain us. Like the fully animated The Boxtrolls the filmmakers fearlessly deal with current, heavy themes as well.
During that first night at the Brown’s home we see how the film swings back and forth between light-hearted silliness and heavier issues such as the welcoming of children and immigrants. Padding is left alone in the upstairs bathroom where he manages to stop up the toilet, pull down the water closet, breaking the pipes. Soon the bathroom is full of water, and then, when the door is opened, he rides in the tub as the wall of water cascades down the stairway. Aghast, the Browns look on helplessly. Pure live cartoon, this episode elicits roars of laughter from children and adults alike. There are lots of smaller gags, as when Paddington, riding an escalator in the Underground, sees a sign that says, “Stand on the right,” so he dutifully lifts up his left leg. This is just after we have laughed when he reads a sign that says that to use the escalator a “dog must be carried,” so he scoops up from the floor a small dog and carries it as he gets on the escalator. Another delightful touch is the casual acceptance of a talking bear by everyone. When Paddington runs away and the Browns give a description of him to a policeman, the officer matter-of-factly says, “Not much to go on.”
While the Browns are helping their disaster-prone guest, we are introduced to the villain, a museum taxidermist named Millicent (Nicole Kidman). She has specimens of every animal but one. She longs for a stuffed bear from Peru, and during the course of the madcap proceedings that follow, we discover she has a personal connection to the bears and the explorer in the prologue. (Her line, “You’re stuffed, bear,” got a big laugh from the audience, many of whose children probably have a stuffed Paddington Bear at home.)
Thanks to the Brown’s suspicious, cranky neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who does not like those who are different, she learns where Paddington lives. Her attempt to kidnap the bear from the home fails, leaving the house in shambles. When the Browns refuse to believe Paddington’s story about her, and he overhears Mr. Brown saying they cannot trust him, the saddened little bear leaves that night, intending to find the explorer on his own. How the Browns change and set out to find and rescue him—which includes Mr. Brown becoming a British version of Mrs. Doubtfire—is a hilarious, and heartwarming, delight for all.
Paul King and his co-screenwriter Hamish McColl have successfully combined live-action with CGI visual effects, thanks to Frame House. Paddington, with his expressive eyes and voiced by Ben Whishaw, is cute but not Disneyish cutesy. Coming so early in the year, this is the children/family film that all later ones will be judged by, raising the bar about as high as it can get. As Dave Calhoun wrote in Time Out London, “For adults, it’s a parable of immigration: the story of a big-eyed outsider having his hopeful dreams challenged by the realities of the British capital. Fantasy? What fantasy?” Thus King and McColl have imaginatively changed the time frame from the late 1950s to the present day where in virtually every Western nation there is suspicion and opposition to immigrants.
There is a fine sequence in antique-store whose owner Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) recalls how he had come to London as a refugee during World War II. Indeed, somewhere I read that it was young war refugees who originally inspired author Michael Bond to create Paddington. So, never say that this is “just a children’s film.” Even were it not done so magnificently well, I would urge adults to stay with their children to see it. I am certain that the One who said, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,” would have enjoyed both the rich humor and the keen insight it offers.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of Visual Parables.