'Harry Potter' producer David Heyman scores again with a bright, breezy big-screen debut for the beloved literary bear.
“No bears were harmed in the making of this film,” boast the closing credits of “Paddington” — and happily, that promise extends to Michael Bond’s ursine literary creation. Fifty-six years after first appearing in print, the accident-prone Peruvian furball is brought to high-tech but thoroughly endearing life in this bright, breezy and oh-so-British family romp from writer-director Paul King and super-producer David Heyman. Affectionately honoring the everyday quirks of Bond’s stories, while subtly updating their middle-class London milieu, King’s film may divide loyal Paddingtophiles with its high-stakes caper plot, but their enraptured kids won’t care a whit. If Paddington’s signature line — “I think I’m in trouble again” — is absent from his feature-length debut, that’s because even the fretful bear should feel bullish about its prospects.
With “Paddington” out in Blighty on Nov. 28, roaring domestic holiday biz is a given, though whether TWC-Dimension can sell U.S. auds on its ample charms when the pic opens Stateside in January is more of a question mark. From its ska-singing sidewalk chorus to the marmalade sandwiches stacked in its hero’s trademark hat, King’s film is thankfully reluctant to neutralize the national flavor of Bond’s distinctly English creation. (Substituting Oreo cookies for oatmeal digestives in one witty scene of biscuit analysis is about as egregious as the concessions to foreign auds get.) Nevertheless, just as Heyman’s blockbusting “Harry Potter” series cannily fostered global Anglophilia through universal storytelling, this intrepid traveler could forge a similar path to more modest international success.
After all, few figures from children’s literature embody the spirit of cultural curiosity more directly than Paddington Bear, a plucky naif who journeys all the way from Lima to London in search of a better life. King’s script, written with a story assist from Hamish McColl, fills in a more elaborate backstory for him than Bond’s books do: A swooping, colorful first act details Paddington’s blissful childhood with elderly relatives in the rainforests of Peru. The idyll is rudely destroyed by an earthquake that leaves his uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon) dead and his aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) headed to a retirement home.
Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw, a more suitably boyish mid-production replacement for Colin Firth) is left alone to make the transatlantic odyssey. It’s a trip of which Lucy had only dreamed, since being educated in all things English by a friendly explorer from the Geographers’ Guild of Great Britain — a detail illustrated in an amusing introductory pastiche of 1930s newsreels that includes, of all things, a supremely unlikely reference to Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” Such sophisticated in-jokery is to be expected of King: Best known for his work on the wildly absurdist TV comedy “The Mighty Boosh,” he’s a pleasingly left-field choice of helmer for this project.
Paddington’s eventual arrival at his namesake train station, and his subsequent discovery by the well-to-do Brown family, hews closely to the setup of Bond’s first book, “A Bear Called Paddington” — with the key difference that their adoption of the animal is here announced as a temporary measure, his plaintive quest for a permanent home driving the film’s story.
As in the books, the audience is required to believe that the arrival of a talking bear in London is unusual rather than extraordinary: Uptight dad and risk analyst Henry (Hugh Bonneville) is reluctant to take Paddington in, but mostly due to the insurance challenges the beast presents. It’s his kindly, kooky wife, Mary (an utterly disarming Sally Hawkins), rather than his wary children, Judy and Jonathan (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin, both spikier than their golly-gosh counterparts on the page), who persuades him otherwise. Still, it’s not long before the bear begins winning over the family at large with his wide-eyed astonishment at urban living.
It’s here where the film is forced to part ways most drastically from its literary source: Where Bond’s books are built from drolly episodic accounts of everyday misadventures, that’s a tricky structure to maintain in a mainstream children’s film. In the interest of galvanizing the narrative and amping up the peril, King and McColl have devised a cheerfully silly, action-heavy chase plot that cribs heavily from “101 Dalmatians,” complete with its own Cruella de Vil: bleach-bobbed taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Nicole Kidman), who’s determined to nab one particular Peruvian breed of bear for her collection.
This narrative development, replete with “Mission: Impossible”-style stunts and superb location use of London’s neo-Gothic Natural History Museum, may sit slightly oddly with the gentler situational comedy of Paddington’s other exploits, but the transition is eased by the film’s bouncy pacing and consistently dry, cockeyed humor, in which Londoners’ seen-it-all cynicism comes in for repeated ribbing. (“It’s not much to go on,” a police detective wearily tells Mary after she files a missing-person report for a bear in a blue duffel coat.) Meanwhile, Kidman, splendidly served by costume designer Lindy Hemming in a range of sexed-up safari gear, is having such infectiously vampish fun as the villain — bringing a Joanna Lumley-style purr even to lines like “Get stuffed, bear” — that one can hardly begrudge her presence.
Technically, the film finds King retaining much of the eccentric visual invention from his independent 2009 debut, “Bunny and the Bull,” albeit with a hefty glob of studio polish. Gary Williamson’s excellent, primary-colored production design is heavy on nuts-and-bolts gadgetry and clever doll’s-house miniaturization that recall the work of Wes Anderson. The Browns’ West London terrace home (with its interior cherry-tree fresco that seems an oblique nod to “Mary Poppins”) is an ever-unfolding designer’s delight.
The challenge lies in matching that handcrafted aesthetic to the state-of-the-art visual effects (courtesy chiefly of Framestore, the collective that worked miracles on the Heyman-produced “Gravity”) that allow Paddington such characterful fluidity of movement and expression. The balance is successfully struck, with the effects warmly recalling the old-school animatronic work of Jim Henson: The film may be a world away from the rudimentary paper-and-plush-toy technique of the BBC’s “Paddington” shorts from the 1970s, but their scrappy spirit is intact.