January is when studios generally release their low-expectation titles to wither and die against award-nominated fare, so it’s a considerable gamble to watch a film starring a CGI-talking animal released in the first weeks of the year. But this live-action Paddington adaptation pays off.
Based on a half-century of classic children’s books by Michael Bond, the movie is set in the present and keeps the focus in London, which is depicted as the ideal place for bears and other exiles. A marmalade-loving bear cub (voiced by Ben Whishaw after Colin Firth exited the project) travels from “Darkest Peru” to England to find the explorer who long ago discovered the bear’s Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon).
Wearing only the explorer’s red hat, the cuddly bear arrives at London’s Paddington Station, where he waits all day for someone to adopt him. Finally, Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) overcomes the doubts of her cautious husband (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville) and two kids’ embarrassment and takes the newly named Paddington home.
Home is where the kid-friendly humor begins. In one crowd-pleasing bit of bathroom humor, Paddington uses the Browns’ toothbrushes to pick his ears, drinks a bottle of mouthwash, sticks his head in the toilet and causes a massive overflow — all while Mr. Brown desperately tries to add “bear coverage” to his home insurance. While the slapstick isn’t particularly original, director Paul King makes the silliness work.
In addition to Bonneville and Hawkins, the cast includes other comically adept actors, such as Julie Walters (Harry Potter’s Molly Weasley) as the Browns’ live-in aunt; Peter Capaldi (the latest star of Doctor Who) as their busybody neighbor; and, most notably, Nicole Kidman as the story’s main antagonist — a greedy museum taxidermist who wants to “stuff” Paddington and put him on display. Sporting animal-skin stilettos and severe bangs, Kidman is campier than she is creepy, but her Cruella de Vil-like character is just menacing enough to make kids fear for Paddington’s happily ever after.
Because of its adorable protagonist, laugh-out-loud gags and touching premise, Paddington succeeds in a way most CGI/live-action hybrids do not. This isn’t a commercial for bear merchandise (yet), but a sweet little film about a cub who finds a family and a home in London.
Cast: Ben Whishaw (voice only), Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Nicole Kidman, Sally Hawkins
Director: Paul King.
Screenwriters: Paul King, Hamish McColl. Based on the books by Michael Bond.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 95 minutes. Mild action, rude humor. Playing at area theaters.