Pardon the unintended pun, but "Paddington" is a gentle, heartfelt bear hug of a movie. In adapting the "Paddington Bear" book series by Michael Bond, writer-director Paul King and co-writer Hamish McColl have fashioned a big-screen romp impeccably blending the aesthetic style of Wes Anderson with the emotional resonance of Wes Anderson on a good day. Delightfully British in its sensibilities, the film is tartly quick-witted, has some earnest lessons to impart, and, best of all, doesn't try too hard. The slapstick is mostly smart, even when it turns to literal bathroom humor, and pop-culture references are nonexistent within a story that melds the old-fashioned and the modern to present an alternate, arguably timeless reality.
Many years ago, a British explorer (Tim Downie) made his way into the rainforests of darkest Peru and befriended a sleuth of curious, intelligent bears. These furry creatures never forgot their special human pal or the English language he taught them, passing down to the ensuing generations of cubs the tales and learning tools he left behind. When an earthquake destroys his home and claims the life of his beloved Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon), a plucky young bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) sets off on a lifeboat to find a new family in London. The people of this foreign city do not exactly welcome him with open armsthat is, until he is found standing on the train platform at Paddington Station and promptly invited by kindly illustrator Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) to come home with her. As the Brown familyMrs. Brown, her stodgy risk analyst husband Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), their terminally embarrassed preteen daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), and science prodigy son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin)gradually warm to this hat-wearing, marmalade-loving bear, they agree to help him track down the whereabouts of the mystery explorer from decades' past. What they do not yet realize, however, is that the newly named Paddington is in grave danger of being kidnapped and stuffed by cutthroat Natural History Museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman).
"Paddington" has a pleasing edge in the form of the gleefully wicked Millicent, whose office includes a front room with mounted animal heads and a second room with their backsides proudly displayed. As gloriously portrayed by Nicole Kidman (2013's "Stoker
"), this blonde-bobbed terror struts around with permanently retracted claws in hiding, ready to manipulate anyone who might be able to help her get ahead and equally ready to hang them head-first below a bridge if they don't cooperate. She is the 21st century's fitting answer to classic Disney villainesses like Cruella de Vil and Maleficent, and Kidman clearly is having a grand time being bad. Offsetting this amusingly biting dark side is the cute-as-a-button, well-mannered Paddington. Full of hope and sunshine in the face of hardship, he wants nothing more than to be accepted and loved. These desires are universal, and his journey in finding his place in the world rings resoundingly true.
Sally Hawkins (2014's "Godzilla
") is a delight as Mrs. Brown, who takes notice of this lonely bear at the train station and feels it is her and her more skeptical family's duty to help him out. Hawkins is one of the most innately lovable actors working today, emanating such an air of sympathetic goodness it would be quite something to see her play a less-than-savory character. Until that time comes, it is a joy to see her in parts like this, her Mrs. Brown believing the best in the people around her and wishing to better connect to her husband and children. As Mr. Brown, Hugh Bonneville's (2014's "The Monuments Men
") is wholly believable as a cynic who drops his defenses the longer he gets to know Paddington. As Mr. Brown begins to take a more active interest in his children, the personal changes he experiences are affectingly conveyed through Bonneville's attentively layered performance. The irrepressible Julie Walters (2008's "Mamma Mia!
") receives some memorable moments, too, as the kooky yet wizened Mrs. Bird, a relative who lives with the Browns.
"Paddington" runs 95 minutes, but it feels like half that length, charmingly gliding by with the unfettered ease of a gazelle. The third act arises so quickly, in fact, that it comes as a surprise. While more time could have been afforded the relationships between the family members, director Paul King still develops them enough to make his point and keep the narrative flowing. Technical credits are tops, from the production design by Gary Williamson (2011's "Submarine
") that brings a whimsical touch to its depiction of London, to Nick Urata's (2012's "Ruby Sparks
") infectiously melodic music score that gives Millicent her own devilish theme. And then there's Ben Whishaw (2012's "Skyfall
"), whose vocal turn as Paddington is endearing perfection; his boyish tone fits just right for a wide-eyed bear who deserves his happiness. A quality family film likely to stand the test of time, "Paddington" is practically impossible to dislike.