In a bid for this year’s Lord-Miller Prize, writer-director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) stuffs Paddington—his ’90s-style, mostly live-action adaptation of Michael Bond’s children’s book series—with gags, visual puns, and imaginative framing devices, all the while preserving a sense of easygoing sweetness. A dollhouse transforms into a cutaway set; a tree mural blooms with flowers or loses its leaves depending on a family’s mood; a chase involving the titular ursid syncs up with a GPS’ instruction to “bear left” and a classroom studying The Winter’s Tale. All the while, an omniscient calypso band provides commentary in song, often huddled under awnings to protect their instruments from the London rain.
There are Rube Goldberg slapstick sequences (co-writer Hamish McColl has written a couple of Rowan Atkinson movies, and it shows) and jokes about everything from Tube signs to taxis. It’s visually busy, but not frenzied, and if the film seems head-and-shoulders above the average effects-driven family-matinee flick, it’s because it never gives the impression that it’s trying to be anything more (or less) than good-natured and fun to watch.
King and McColl have tweaked Bond’s stories about a marmalade-loving, duffle-coat-wearing bear into a baby-mild satire of xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Having learned English from a set of decades-old records (“Fact: Londoners have 107 ways of saying ‘it’s raining.’”) and mastered the manners and disapproving stare of the stereotypical mid-century Englishman, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) travels from Darkest Peru to London, where nobody seems to care that he’s an anthropomorphic talking bear, but plenty of people seem to be hung up on the fact that he’s an immigrant. Taken by the Browns (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) to their home at 32 Windsor Gardens, Paddington is met with suspicion by next-door neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who worries that the arrival of a Peruvian bear will bring “jungle music” and “all-night picnics” to their quiet street.
It’s hardly a subversion of the original stories; heck, Michael Bond himself pops up to offer an approving toast to the proceedings. However, as with a lot of art that’s meant for children—which is what Paddington is, regardless of its sophistication or the resumes of all involved—the point is to explain a value rather than take it apart. Despite the presence of a high-tech taxidermist villain (Nicole Kidman in a bleached bob) and the movie’s repeated references to World War II-era evacuations (including the least tasteless Holocaust reference to ever grace a talking animal movie), what Paddington presents is an essentially sweet-tempered vision of urban life founded on shared values of decency; even the movie’s ribbing of casual big-city bigotry is gentle.