Yogi Bear, Top Cat, Postman Pat; the list of nostalgia-shattering adaptations of beloved children’s characters is far too long to mention in full. And with a lead up that included the unfortunate ‘Creepy Paddington’ meme and, more recently, a PG rating for “mild innuendo”, fans of Michael Bond’s ursine creation may have expected Paddington’s first big-screen outing to join that disastrous collection.
Perish the thought. Paul King’s movie is a quirky, magical and thoroughly British delight that succeeds in capturing the original’s joyful spirit of a well-mannered outsider getting into scrapes and also some of its pathos as Paddington arrives, cold, wet and alone, at the station that bequeaths his name in search of a new home.
Ben Wishaw is an inspired choice to replace the nobly departed Colin Firth, his soft and innocent tones wonderfully complementing the vivid visual effects work of Framestore, who bring our adored fury friend to life in all his wide-eyed splendour – it turns out a CGI makeover doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
A slightly re-tooled set-up gives Paddington a tragic backstory as a sudden earthquake forces him to abandon his home in darkest Peru and head for pastures new in London. After stowing away on a cargo ship with only a suitcase of marmalade for company, Paddington arrives expecting the charming city once described to his family by a British explorer, but soon realises that city life is not all he imagined.
King is on boundlessly inventive form here as he channels the charming sense of whimsy he honed while directing the likes of The Mighty Boosh, evoking the tone of an Aardman production with some madcap inventions and storybook visuals to sprinkle a little magical realism onto a mundane world.
And that’s exactly the effect Paddington has on the mildly eccentric Brown family, gradually bringing out the best in his new guardians by injecting some much-needed chaos into their humdrum lives, which had previously been spent wasting Saturdays at the Victorian Wool museum.
The film has plenty of gags to amuse the whole family, King cramming slapstick mishaps, inventive sight gags, cheeky word play and subtle innuendo into a densely-packed script that also boasts a string of stunning set pieces, and the action escalates at such an unstoppable pace that you’ll almost certainly miss a couple of jokes on first viewing.
If the fish-out-of-water calamities threaten to wear thin in the early stages, fear not, King resists the urge to milk the cliché for more than its worth and wisely reigns in the antics to focus more on the film’s silly and likeable characters. Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville is superb as the affably risk-averse Mr Brown, grumpily quoting risk-percentages every time his two children try to have fun, while his kind and adventurous wife (Sally Hawkins) takes an instant liking to the lonely bear lost in a train station.
But no sooner has Paddington begun to crash his way into his new family’s hearts than his happy lifestyle is threatened by a malicious taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who has a nefarious plan to add a stuffed bear to her museum exhibition. Kidman is a joy to watch in this role, her character a dastardly mix of Crueller De Vile and icy femme fatale, and she brings a theatrical flourish to every step and every stare.
If there’s one dud note here, it’s that the Brown children are poorly written, the tired tropes of moody teenager and anarchic tyke smacking of lazy characterization. However, it seems churlish to mention such a minor flaw when it’s placed in the context of such a wondrous film.
Fun, festive and heartfelt, Paddington is that all too rare thing: a triumphant reimagining of a treasured children’s character that both captures the charm of the original and also imbues it with a modern sense of wry humour on the way to crafting the best family-friendly film of the year.
Running time: 95 mins; Genre: Adventure/Comedy; Released: 28 November 2014
Director: Paul King; Screenwriter: Paul King;
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman
Click here to watch the trailer for Paddington