Bear Necessity: Paddington Review (A)

As anyone who knows movies can (and will) tell you, January and February can be a pretty dire time to be a moviegoer. It’s an overstatement to be sure, because it’s not like all those late-2014 releases disappeared on New Years’ Eve (one of the best five movies of this decade, Selma, is playing near you right now, so you shouldn’t see anything from 2015, even this charmer we’re about to discuss, until you’ve seen Ava Duvernay’s masterpiece). And hey some Oscar nominated films have even been re-released just this week!

But this much is true; studios are not looking to provide their best product right now. If a film is coming out between January 1st and March 1st, there’s a good chance something is fishy. If it was pushed from an earlier release date into that window, you could place a safe double or nothing bet in Vegas that the whole enterprise is so fishy, ticket prices should be listed at Market Price. (And that Market Price should be low.)

There is good in this world however, and no month can simply be tossed aside out of hand. Because sometimes a movie gets released in mid-winter because, despite its quality, its studio just doesn’t know what to do with it (the twin triumphs of January 2012, The Grey and Chronicle, which were both dark and uncompromising and had to be sold as generic action thrillers to earn audiences, come to mind). And sometimes they’re released where they have the best fighting chance to slay unworthy competition (like last year’s February smash, The Lego Movie).

Such is our luck this week, because Paddington – despite being delayed (from 2014), recast (out: Colin Firth, in: Ben Whishaw), and shuffled off to the Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland that is January – is one of the best movies of its kind that you’re likely to see. All year. Any year.

You’ll hear a lot of hemming and hawing about how Paddington is good… enough to placate your children. Or good… because of our fondness for all things British-y. Those distinctions are in play, but really Paddington is good because it’s a great piece of filmmaking, firing on every cylinder. We all put aside our grown-up voices to fawn over how delightful and transporting The Lego Movie was last year. Long ago, we allowed Pixar to pass the bouncer that keeps kids’ stuff from grown-up stuff. So I’m here to tap the bouncer on the shoulder and whisper that Paddington is on the list.

Paddington, based on the world-famous series of children’s books by British author Michael Bond, follows a young bear who learned everything he knows about British culture from old vinyl records left by an old-school explorer. After disaster strikes Darkest Peru – where Paddington, with his aunt and uncle, had lived happily for decades – the little bear is stowed away on a steam ship bound for England by his aged Aunt, who soothingly tells the nervous youngling that once, in harsh times, British families had taken in children who were not their own and cared for them as if they were. Surely, the same will be true decades after the sun set on the harsh colonialism of the British Empire.

And the film’s twin journeys begin. One, the slow acceptance of the orphaned bear into the Brown household in spite of Mr. Brown’s reservations, is a lighthearted comedy of manners overflowing with details that charm, evoke, and transport. The other, which sees Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist work with the Brown’s insensitive neighbor (the newest Doctor, Peter Capaldi) to kidnap and “deal with” the unwanted newcomer, is fascinating on an allegorical level but uneven in execution.

Eventually, both these characters are folded pretty neatly into the plot (a third act reveal does wonders explaining why a bewigged taxidermist with the skillset of a demented James Bond has been chasing an innocent bear for days), but it’s instructive to note the ways in which the villain subplot fails to live up to the film around it. From the lecherous way that Capaldi’s character woos Kidman’s (the word “honeypot” is really having a moment right now), to the breakneck verbal pacing of Kidman’s delivery, to, most noticeably, the way her antics invite action spectacle in a gentle vignette-based film that needs none, this jaunt through the Natural History Museum feels like just that – something accidentally spliced in from the Ben Stiller Night at the Museum films, with their campy, oversized performances and zany plot machinations. You know, an anthropomorphized monkey peeing on a tiny cowboy Owen Wilson.

Some of this is the stuff we might have feared Paddington would be when we first glimpsed Paddington’s washroom misadventures in the film’s teaser. We saw a creepy CGI bear interacting with (and tearing apart) a non-CGI world, and, well, we think Scooby-Doo. We think Yogi Bear. We think Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We think Smurfs. We don’t think pleasant thoughts.

We are a long way from the boom of non-animated children’s’ films of the 1990s (Matilda, where art thou?). As the Harry Potter films evolved past Chris Columbus’s (yes, that really is the director’s name) boarding school fantasia and into the darker realms of adolescence, the entire YA genre evolved with them, into the (admittedly rocking) teen-girl beats back a dystopia norm we have now. Empowering. But noticeably built for Young Adults, indicative of the overall Young Adult-ization of Childhood and Adulthood that you can see in any Barnes & Noble, where the YA section slithers its tendrils out every which way, consuming shelf space that would normally be dedicated to whimsical illustrated storybooks (like the Paddington books) and shelf space that would be dedicated to grown-up Science Fiction. It has left actual children to suffer through nothing but the the CGI-laden leftovers from past generations’ Saturday Morning Cartoon feasts.

Fortunately, Kidman’s subplot aside, Paddington is not that film. Spritely and innovative, this film is that rarest of rare birds – a non-animated film that you would feel comfortable taking a three-year old to see. Ticking along to the tune of a child’s sense of whimsy, it is always working to tell its story in the best and (this is very important) most visual manner possible. I can count only two things about the film that gave me pause – the aforementioned subplot, and a scene that mines the non-humor of a man unintentionally hitting on a man in a dress – but I can count at least fifteen moments of visual wit that made me sit up and take notice and that inspired me creatively. That’s a ratio I’ll get behind. Not for a children’s film but for any film.

From the crackling newsreel footage that opens the film, to the soaring shot (capped by a snowball right in our faces) that caps it, Paddington – which allows it’s camera to come totally unmoored from anything resembling mundanity – is a cinematographer’s/director’s showcase. It is a marvel to behold some of the motifs Erik Wilson and Paul King use to get across their ideas and themes: to introduce us to the particular quirks of the Brown family, the camera tracks up and down a cross-section of a dollhouse that resides in the attic Paddington calls home for much of the film. While it celebrates their individual quirks, it also highlights how boxed into their roles this family is – Father the worrier, Mother the unfulfilled romantic, Daughter the angsty teen, Son the disregarded dreamer. They are Every Family, Britain circa 2015.

Not that their house isn’t a delight despite its conformity. Of particular note is a painted tree that sprawls up the walls of their parlor, winding through a spiral staircase. That tree takes on a life of its own, shedding all its leaves when the tone of the film gets despairing, and swaying lushly when all is well. It’s one of my favorite visuals I’ve seen in a film I’ve reviewed. Similarly inspired: a list Paddington has of every M. Clyde in London is transposed in scrawled handwriting across the skyline, showing us in seconds how far-reaching and arduous the little bear’s quest is; the moment when Paddington, seeing the newsreel that opened the film, walks through the screen like it’s mist, allowing him to physically explore homesickness; the story of a Holocaust survivor, which plays out in miniature within one of the man’s model trains; my personal favorite, which sees quick cutaways to a gothic orphanage and Mr. Brown’s still-gothic denial of the word orphanage; and the entire conception of the Geographers’ Guild, a sprawling clockwork bureaucracy that has stricken all mention of Darkest Peru from its records.

Why? Because Malcolm Clyde failed to bring back any stuffed specimens of his wonderful discovery, a pair of advanced bears that could speak and use tools. In black-and-white flashback, we see the stuffy colonialists of the Guild turn their back on the ostracized explorer. In doing so, they turn their backs on seeing anything that is not British as something other than lesser than. Paddington hits this particular allegorical note quite a bit more than you’d expect from a children’s book adaptation. The filmmakers are wrestling with a lot subtextually; yeah, this may be a film about a cuddly bear finding solace in the warmth of a glowing mother figure (I actually want Sally Hawkins to get awards recognition for her role in this film; she is perfect), but it is also a film that is not so subtly about white middle class privilege, attitudes towards the homeless and immigrants, and multi-culturalism.

It’s working on two levels. On one level, Paddington’s adoption into the Brown household and the neighborhood’s embrace of him is pretty standard fare about accepting anyone for who they are and for the things that make them special. On another level, it’s all a rather pointed critique of risk-averse isolationism that weaponizes Bond’s original intentions with the Paddington books – he really was inspired by how England rallied around the cause and took in children of all stripes, and thought a lost bear from Darkest Peru could stand in for that sacrifice and camaraderie.

Tell me if you’ve heard this line: “Kids will enjoy it, and the adults supervising them will get enough out of the stuff that’s aimed at them.” This has been a way of recommending children’s films to parents for what seems like ages. A certain school of films took that to heart not as a symptom of a film well-made but as a goal in itself – to construct a film that would separate its content aimed at its actual audience and the stuff aimed at its “secret” audience (dated pop culture references and the like) like oil and vinegar left unshaken. Every once in a blessed while, someone shakes the vinaigrette, and we can meet as equals once more.

Yes, equals. For some reason, writing and directing for kids has become seen as lesser, but a surfeit of cartoons on TV that treat children and pre-teens as smarter than we might let on (your Avatars and your Adventure Times) have delighted adults not because they have gags aimed at their nostalgic pleasure centers but because they actually tap into the nostalgia for youth and infinite possibility. I have seldom laughed so hard at a film or been so impressed with the craft of the filmmaking as I have at films like last year’s triumph Ernest and Celestine, or at this year’s darling January surprise Paddington, a transporting comedy triumph that will throw a grown-up into fits of childlike giggles and just might make a child think about immigration reform.