Earlier this year, when I went to watch The Lego Movie, I was reminded, in the pre-film trailers, just how awful films for young children can be. What a relief, then, that Lego turned out so brilliantly, and, as a further bonus for family-friendly cinema this year, Paul King’s Paddington is a genuine delight. It’s smart, funny, warm, boasts a great British comedy cast, and has two broad but charming messages – that immigration is an integral part of British culture and, for the kids, that parents can be really cool sometimes, you just have to give them the opportunity. Whilst this had the potential to be a cynical cash-grab, instead Paddington is a great adaptation of the beloved stories, and the best way for a family to spend 90 minutes at the cinema this winter.
We are first introduced to Paddington himself (amiably voiced be Ben Whishaw, who replaced Colin Firth relatively late in production) in darkest Peru, where he lives with his Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). Shot on location in Costa Rica, this brief but welcome sequence looks idyllically gorgeous, and the introduction to the region, given through an old-timey explorer’s (Tim Downie) film, contains many of the film’s best gags. Unfortunately, his home is ravaged by an earthquake, the effects of which are probably the reason Paddington was given its controversial PG rating, and so our eponymous bear has to travel to London, where the explorer promised him he could always find a home.
However, London is not as friendly as it used to be, with Paddington’s foster family, the Browns, (with Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as the parents) reluctantly taking him in, and with the caveat that it’s only for one night, although no one in London at any point questions the existence of a talking bear. Eventually he wins them over, but not before he’s caught the unpleasant attentions of a high-heeled taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) and a xenophobic neighbour (Peter Capaldi). Yes, Paddington will anger UKIP, with its pro-tolerance morals and an Afro-Caribbean soundtrack continually reminding the audience of the country’s rich history of immigrants.
Obviously, seeing as this is a children’s film, the allegories are by no means constant, merely interspersed between a series of ridiculous, childish, and outstandingly fun set-pieces, whether that entails an aerial chase with a thief or a daring raid on the Geographers’ Society, directed with aplomb by Paul King. The Mighty Boosh helmer is on tremendous form here, every scene brightened up by an imaginative flourish. It also features one of the imaginative scene transitions I’ve seen in a long time, as the doll’s house in the Browns’ attic opens up to reveal a cross section of their actual house, cutting from night to day at the same tie. There is enough here to thoroughly entertain both kids and grown ups, with broad, slapstick laughs mingling with a very witty script, which refuses to descend to crass rudeness when making jokes for the adults in the audience, the mark of the superior family film. Being as frightfully English as it is, Paddington is never less than charming, and whilst that may not translate particularly well oversees, it’s easy to see why cinemas across the country were absolutely packed out during its opening weekend.
This is all aided by a great cast, with almost every face likely to elicit at least a glimmer of recognition. Alongside the core characters – amongst whom are possibly the most realistic and likeable children I’ve seen on screen (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris) – there is support from Peep Show, Mighty Boosh, and Thick of It alumni, not to mention one Oscar winner and another nominee (Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters respectively). The love that the Paddington stories command nationwide is evident in every second of the film, even if Mr Gruber’s (Broadbent) elevenses don’t quite get the screen time they deserve. The main event, Paddington himself, looks really great in CG, and even if he’s not quite Dawn of the Planet of the Apes realistic, he still fits in almost seamlessly with the world around him. Not to mention the fact that he is absolutely adorable, with a plush, huggable face, Ben Whishaw’s gentle voice and Dr. Zoidberg-esque eating habits. Every time I remembered that I could never meet/adopt Paddington in real life, it made me a little sad.
If it weren’t for The Lego Movie (and I am yet to see Big Hero 6), I would have no hesitation in labelling Paddington the best children’s movie since Toy Story 3. Whilst it is not quite as belly-laugh hilarious as Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s stellar piece, it is still absolutely worth the cinema trip. Warm-hearted and hugely entertaining, it’s a reminder that family-friendly fiction need not be a by-the-numbers slog, containing important morals for everyone in the audience. Quite probably the most English film of 2014 (based on every Londoner’s favourite marmalade fiend, starring four Harry Potter actors and plenty of pasty BBC faces), everyone who grew up or is still growing up on this island owes it to themselves to see Paddington.