The original Paddington stories have a certain fairytale quality. This bear just shows up in a London train station, with a tag that says "Please look after this bear," and a kindly family instantly takes him in. We apparently can no longer believe in such a simple story of generosity, judging from the new film.
Mild spoilers ahead...
Paddington, out today in the U.S., takes the story of the young bear from Peru who comes to London, and adds a lot more complication (and a bit of darkness) to it. The family is no longer quite so unanimous about welcoming a troublesome talking animal into their home — the father, who puts up only a brief token hesitation in the book, is resolutely opposed to it, and the tween daughter is worried about losing social status with the boy she likes.
Paddington the bear came to London because he was promised a kind of cheery British paradise, where people greet each other and there are a billion genial ways to complain about the weather. (The film explains, as the books never do, that Paddington was inculcated into a love of Blighty by a British geographer who came to Peru.) But the actual London that Paddington arrives in is bustling, cosmopolitan, and a bit more hard-hearted.
It's not just that Judy Brown is worried about the other kids thinking she's not cool, or Mr. Brown being an uptight, overprotective parent who obsesses about insurance and risk-management. The city, in general, is a harsher and less jolly than Paddington is led to expect. Through a series of hints and speeches, we learn that this has something to do with distrust of immigrants, but also the fact that everybody's gotten so hyper-aware of things like "stranger danger." This is a world shaped by globalization and Facebook and memes and so on.
But the magic of Paddington, in this film's view of him, is that he's simultaneously more wild and more civilized than the people he meets. That is, he's totally acculturated to some archaic form of British politeness, thanks to his outdated recordings left by that old explorer, and he shocks people with his good manners and love of tea and marmalade. But then when you least expect it, he acts like an undomesticated animal, making gross snarfing noises as he sticks his snout into whatever he's eating.
It's as if Paddington represents a kind of lost innocence, which is both more natural and more mannered than the brusque hyper-awareness of today's people. And as is traditional for magical characters in kids' movies nowadays, Paddington brings out the best in the people he meets — the best meaning a kind of playfulness and openness to flights of fancy, sort of. The Browns regain their sense of whimsy, as symbolized by the vaguely magical-realist painting of vines on their wall, which blossoms or wilts according to their spiritual health.
And meanwhile, there are various other sources of darkness, chief among them a brand new villain (played by Nicole Kidman, reprising her role from The Golden Compass, as various people have already pointed out) who wants to stuff Paddington and put him in a display case. Plus an interlude where Paddington becomes homeless — although it's leavened by a random Buckingham Palace Guard, the most old-school British symbol of them all, who gives him tea and treats.
If Paddington has a central flaw, it's that everything feels a bit by-the-numbers to me — the comic set pieces mostly feel like stuff I've seen before, the story is very conventional, the jokes are mostly pretty warmed over, and the human characters in the film feel like one-dimensional archetypes. (They're one-dimensional in the book, too, but they're not archetypes like "uptight dad" and "free-spirit mom," "nerdy son" and "popularity-conscious daughter.")
Ironically, for a film that has such a huge subtext about the dangers of cynicism, a lot of the stuff that's been done to "update" this material for a modern audience feels slightly cynical, or at least quite self-consciously commercial.
That said, Paddington is consistently cute and charming, and highly watchable. Ben Whishaw has just the right touch of naivete and generosity as the voice of the foreign bear seeking a bygone England, and director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) layers in enough anarchic, surreal touches (like a random Calypso group that shows up during street scenes) to make this feel like something special. In the end, just like its main character, Paddington rises above cynicism and reminds us gently of a lost innocence.