In darkest Peru, a British explorer (Tim Downie) equipped with a red bush hat and a suitcase full of marmalade has a fateful encounter with a pair of local bears he names Lucy and Pastuzo (CGI creations voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon, respectively). Years later, after the bears have adopted and raised their orphaned nephew, a tragedy sets the young bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) on his way to present-day London where he’s distressed to find the locals not as friendly and inviting as advertised on the gramophone records that the explorer left behind.
At Paddington station, only kindly Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins), a mother and children’s book illustrator with a bohemian streak, insists on helping out the lonely traveller – whom she renames Paddington – much to the irritation of uptight husband Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville, the film’s live-action man of the match) and their indifferent, pre-teen children (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin).
Mishaps aplenty ensue, but Paddington eventually wins the affections of the household, including elderly relative Mrs Bird (Julie Walters). The question is, can they keep him safe from the clutches of a mysterious, stiletto-heeled taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) from the Natural History Museum, who’s hellbent on adding Paddington’s hide to the museum’s collection? And off the new feature film adventure for this much-loved character goes.
It’s a brave team of film-makers who take on a property as beloved as this gentle if somewhat dyspraxic bear, who has been entrancing readers and TV viewers, young and old, ever since Michael Bond’s original bedtime book first hit the shelves in 1958. The BBC’s animated TV series from the 1970s, produced by Bond himself (he was a Beeb cameraman for years), captured the books’ quintessentially British, duffel-coats-and-crumpets spirit so beautifully, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother with a feature film. But this is an age of remakes, reboots and the “featurisation”, to coin a word, often made from products far less promising than Paddington.
Luckily, the project fell into the hands of the production company behind the Harry Potter films, who took a punt on writer/director Paul King, best known for making episodes of The Mighty Boosh and the flawed but not uninteresting feature film Bunny & the Bull. Collectively, the team has managed to walk the delicate tightrope between legacy and modern audience expectations, producing a work brimming with wit, technical invention and emotional nuance that should silence internet critics who dubbed the film’s first, early trailers “creepy.”
While children will break out in fits of giggles over the physical comedy, particularly the well-timed slapstick sequences set in a bathroom and a London Tube barrier, accompanying adults will relish the wink-wink grown-up jokes and sly visual references to film-makers like Wes Anderson (the dollhouse sets) and Jacques Demy (all those umbrellas and jewel colours), with tips of the hat to classic Disney fare, especially in Kidman’s channelling of Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians.
Fundamentally, however, it’s a thrillingly, lovingly, deeply British film, as comforting as Christmas pantomimes, double-decker buses and hot milky tea. The cast, from the stand-out leads to Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas in amusing supporting roles, look like they’re having a ball and the animation for Paddington and his forebears is, for the most part, beautifully executed. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll believe a bear can talk with Received Pronunciation.