Saturday, January 17, 2015

Movie Review: "Paddington"

Children's literature is full of lovable talking bears, but there is only one Paddington.  After decades upon decades of TV adaptations (animated and live action), Michael Bond's creation finally finds his way to the bigscreen courtesy of producer David Heyman (the man responsible for the Harry Potter series).  With the unique talents of Mighty Boosh writer/director Paul King, Paddington manages to be an inventive children's film that rivals the classic slapstick comedies of the Marx Brothers, while also retaining the innocence and charm that makes Paddington one of my personal childhood favorites.

The thing that separates Paddington from the pack of almost every other children's movie, is that everything in this movie feels like it was carefully thought out.  We are told how Paddington and his Aunt and Uncle in darkest Peru learned how to speak English, thanks to a British explorer who tells them that they will always be welcome in London.  When Paddington must relocate, his Aunt sends him to England, where he discovers London isn't as friendly as they thought.  Even still, he meets the Brown family, the kind of Mary Poppins-like family that only works in movies and yet are entirely lovable in their own right.  The Browns ultimately take in Paddington as their houseguest until he can track down the British explorer.  Safe to say, hijinks ultimately ensue as Paddington becomes the ultimate immigrant.  He is a bear adrift in a human world after all, not understanding many human customs, but always trying to do the right thing through kindness and gentility.

I just have to say, Paul King has directed a film that is genuinely as magical as the books upon which it was based.  If there was perhaps any other writer/director, the movie would not be the same.  King gives Paddington this sense of cartoonish whimsy that allows you take everything that the story does seriously.  Very often, movies mess up when trying to basically make a live action cartoon, and that is because they often don't make the story enough of a fantasy and too realistic.  This story accepts the absurdity of a talking bear and never really comments on it or pokes fun at the idea, but embraces it.  From the moment Paddington first arrives in King's Cross station, there is never a human that is confused by the sight of a talking bear, they just treat him like another human being, selling the fantasy reality that King has created.

Thanks to the perfectly realized collision of Paddington and the world of humans at King's Cross, it allows the audience to go along with the fantastical visuals that King uses to illustrate the story, recalling directors like Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry with a lot of King's off the wall visual concepts that I found always delightful and completely engaging.  For example, when the camera goes toward a doll house and then the house unfolds, revealing the Browns inside their own home, I was speechless as we see what each and every member of the family is doing in their individual rooms.   I was also amazed at how every set and costume was meticulously color coded by King and his collaborators, with the color red representing adventurous thinking (sported for most of the movie by Mrs. Brown), and the color blue often representing the established order (most often sported by Mr. Brown).   Of course, the true test of making a movie about Paddington was going to be in whether or not the filmmakers would be able to pull off Paddington himself, and they do so to glorious effect.

VFX house, Framestore, has created a CGI Paddington that is designed somewhere between a big teddy bear and a real bear from Peru, that allows Paddington to interact with the humans and do all of the crazy fun things he does in this movie.  However, what really brings Paddington to life is the voice.  The voice was the killer thing that the filmmakers knew they had to get right, because if you chose the wrong voice, Paddington wouldn't have the sweetness that he needs to be lovable.  The voice of Paddington was under much scrutiny when last year it was announced that Colin Firth amicably left the project because he and the filmmakers decided that his voice just wasn't fitting well with Paddington.  While I would be curious to see the version of Paddington with Firth's voice, I must say it would be hard to imagine.  Firth's voice is a lot more grown up sounding than that of his replacement, Ben Whishaw's.  Whishaw's voice has a youthful sound to it that makes Paddington sound a whole lot more innocent and naive, but no less kind or gentle.  It is with Whishaw that the success of this movie really relied upon, and thankfully he delivered, but that's not to say the rest of this cast aren't good.  Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins manage to sell the wacky ideas of this film by playing Mr. and Mrs. Brown deadly serious.  Then there is Nicole Kidman as an evil taxidermist, who is evil, but never hammy, which would have been an easy line to cross with material like this.  In short, the cast coupled with Whishaw's voice, King's script and direction, and the work of the VFX crew, bring to life a new children's classic.

I really think Paddington is the sort of movie that appeals to all.  The jokes in it are funny no matter how old you are, and the thematic ideas of isolation and home are so universal that anyone can relate to them.  The movie made me laugh extremely hard, while also touching me and inspiring me.  Few movies nowadays actually make you optimistic about the world we live in and make you smile and feel good about yourself and humanity in general, and that's what Paddington does wholeheartedly.  Just a note, this movie is best watched with a marmalade sandwich (not that I am proposing you sneak food into a movie theater) .

I give Paddington a 10 out of 10!

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