On the Gentle and Pleasant ‘Paddington’

The trailer for “Paddington” is among the worst I have seen in some time. Based on the trailer one would not be incorrect in the assumption that “Paddington” will be another in a series of insulting takes on beloved children’s properties such as “The Chipmunks,” or “The Smurfs.” The trailer features gross out humor, bad slapstick and, worst of all, not one, single, solitary laugh.

That was just the first trailer. The second trailer only seemed to pile the dirt higher on the film’s grave. The follow up trailer introduced Nicole Kidman as the film’s villain, a taxidermist determined to make Paddington the next prize in her museum collection. Ms. Kidman’s career has been on a steady decline for some time now and her status, plus the general awfulness of both trailers seemed to signal doom for “Paddington.”

So, imagine my surprise when upon seeing “Paddington” I did not find a steaming pile of Smurf like offal. Imagine, in fact, expectations so lowered by awful marketing that I found myself delighted by “Paddington.”  Yes, the lowered expectations helped, but truly “Paddington” is really quite unexpectedly good.

“Paddington” features the voice of Ben Whishaw as the titular bear, a rare breed from deepest, darkest Peru who learned to talk from his grandparents who were visited by an Englishman in some timeless realm. The Englishman invited the bears to come visit him in England any time and when poachers begin poking around the forest, Paddington is sent off to England for safe keeping.

During World War II as London was besieged by German bombers, children were evacuated from the city. Some of the children were orphaned by the bombings and to give them a new life in a new town they were often given only a cardboard sign around their neck asking that someone please take care of them. Knowing this story, Paddington is given a similar sign upon his arrival in London.

Found by the Brown family, including mother Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), father Henry Brown (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) and their two children, Judy (Madeline Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), Paddington quickly finds a new home while also beginning his search for the Englishman who once invited his family to England.

A rather convoluted backstory introduces Nicole Kidman as Millicent, the film’s villainous Taxidermist. That the role is not a complete embarrassment to the one time box office star and Academy Award Winner is something of a triumph. You can sense from the beginning that this is a movie Kidman made so her children could see her and yet the compromise somehow doesn’t harm the performance. Kidman hams it up to surprisingly good effect in “Paddington.”

Paddington featuring the voice of Ben Whishaw

Paddington featuring the voice of Ben Whishaw

First time feature director Paul King makes “Paddington” work by creating a very simple, pleasant tone. The film is gentle and sweet and, aside from the abysmal bathroom sequence seen in the trailer, avoids being simpleminded and pandering. Smartly no effort is made to make Paddington hip or modern, the film exists in a time warp, it’s very own universe with familiar rules, save for the fact that bears can talk.

Aside from the bathroom scene from the trailer, the fact that no one in England finds a talking bear odd is the film’s biggest flaw. I hate it when a movie makes the fantastic seem common place. Aliens, superheroes, and talking bears are something to marvel at if they’ve never been seen before. Avoiding how unusual a talking bear is plays like a joke that only the filmmakers found funny.

I generally don’t care for movies that are described as ‘Gentle’ or ‘Pleasant’ but I didn’t mind it so much in “Paddington.” Something about the plushy “Paddington” invites ‘Gentle’ and welcomes ‘Pleasant.’ Had the marketing campaign played up the gentle and pleasant aspects of “Paddington” rather than the one, outlying scene of misguided antics, I might have even more appreciation for “Paddington.”

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