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A marmalade-quaffing Peruvian jungle bear learns English and travels to London in search of a new home. While on the surface this fish-out-of-water story seems old hat, something more is going on. Just like Maria in The Sound of Music was the catalyst for the brusque Captain von Trapp to admit his mistakes, so too does Paddington change the family that takes him in.
Henry Brown, the father, is nominally head of the household, more tolerated than respected. His hyper-cautious temperament cannot abide a rambunctious bear doing battle with indoor plumbing (in the film’s defining set piece). But we soon learn that Henry was not always so reserved, and what made him change then is the same thing that helps him realize Paddington’s value now.
This PG movie’s mixture of simple humor and sanitized peril should appeal to children 5 to 11. Some of the material is a bit discordant. The hero-dad poses as a cleaning woman to breach a secret archive, only to be hit on by a lecherous security guard in a painfully extended scene. The brother teases his sister, saying she wants to “bunk up” with her boyfriend. And then there’s the taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who’s seeking to stuff Paddington, briefly torturing a cabbie to get information, and an eccentric live-in relative who drinks a security guard under the table.
Still, Paddington is beautiful to look at. An early scene with its digitally animated rendering of billowing fur and watery eyes is amazing. The film never gets predictable as we’re treated to amusing flashbacks and characters’ vivid imaginings. And Ben Whishaw (Q from the James Bond films) finds the right mixture of pathos and exuberance in voicing Paddington.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that Paddington, schooled in the ways of a gentler London 40 years past, finds its people callous and dismissive, a refreshing cinematic indictment of our own day.