By Mary Houlihan/For the Sun-Times
The first must-see family film of the year comes in the shape of a small bear with a note around its neck: “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” Legions of children (and parents) will immediately know this is Paddington Bear, first brought to life in Michael Bond’s delightful books first published in 1958.
Ten years in the making, the movie version is just as delightful, wrapping the viewer in an enhanced story about one very polite bear who loves marmalade and has an endless talent for getting into trouble. A mix of live action and animation (by London’s Framestore animation studio), “Paddington” features a roster of top British talent, under Paul King’s direction, that brings the story to life with a freshness not often seen in films for the younger set.
The film, which tackles themes of tolerance, immigration and acceptance, begins with a back story set in “darkest Peru” where Paddington (perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw, who replaced Colin Firth midway through production) lives with his Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy (voices of Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton). Years earlier they had befriended a British explorer who helped them develop a taste for marmalade and a talent for languages.
One day, an earthquake destroys their elaborately clever home. It is the nudge Aunt Lucy needs to ship Paddington off to England, where their explorer friend had assured them a friendly welcome would await.
Bond has said the young children evacuating London during World War II with suitcases and identifying labels around their necks inspired the first Paddington book. This moment is aptly captured in the film as Paddington walks around his namesake train station looking for someone to look after him (no one blinks an eye at the sight of a young bear in their midst).
It’s here he eventually meets the Browns, a modern yet whimsical British family led by the overly protective Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), the clever and kind Mrs. Brown (a sweetly disarming Sally Hawkins) and their children, sulky teen Judy (Madeleine Harris) and tween inventor Jonathan (Samuel Joslin).
Uptight Mr. Brown is not keen on having the bear stay over even for one night, but the big-hearted Mrs. Brown insists, assuring him in the morning they will start a search for the explorer who promised that welcome many years ago. In the meantime, Paddington has a very funny stranger-in-a-strange land encounter with the Browns’ bathroom (his use of their toothbrushes is a gross-out moment children will love) that leaves Mr. Brown certain he was correct.
As they begin the search for the explorer, the Paddington story veers off from the original source, and the filmmakers amp up the narrative into a chase plot that involves Millicent Clyde (a vampishly fun Nicole Kidman), a taxidermist who’s determined to add a certain species of brown bear to her collection. She’s assisted by the Brown’s nosy and randy neighbor, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who is not at all pleased with having a bear next door.
This transition from easygoing story to a threat on Paddington’s existence is tempered by the film’s even pacing and plenty of that cynical British humor. (When Mrs. Brown files a police report about a missing bear in a red hat and blue duffel coat, the response is, “It’s not much to go on.”)
Children will find plenty to love visually in “Paddington,” a film filled with fantastic mechanical wonders. And this film simply looks fabulous with a magical set design reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie. From the bears’ treetop haven and the Browns’ Notting Hill home (which opens up like a storybook) to an enchanting antique shop in Portobello Road, the wondrous Geographic Guild and the spooky Natural History Museum, this is a feast for the eyes and the imagination.
The filmmakers behind “Paddington” successfully bring the lovable bear into the future and strike a balance between honoring the spirit of the original books and updating the story for today’s young audiences. This is a charming film whose underlying message of tolerance and acceptance strikes a palpable chord in today’s world — both for children and adults.
TWC-Dimension Films presents a film directed by Paul King. Written by King and Hamish McColl, based on the books by Michael Bond. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG (for mild action and rude humor). Opens Friday at local theaters.