Paddington is structurally dull, but great in the details

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I’m generally of the opinion that awards shows and film awards are ten pounds of pointlessness in a five pound bag, but once in a blue moon a film being nominated will cause me to reevaluate my interest in it. Such was the case when it was announced that Paddington, the live action film adapted from the beloved children’s book series, had been nominated for two British Institute of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards. “Paddington?” thought I, my incredulity as thick as expired mayonnaise. “The one with the creepy bear and the teaser focused mostly on scatological humor, the one thing guaranteed to make me lose interest in a movie? Pull the other one!”

And yet, it was true. Paddington picked up two BAFTA nods, for best British film and best adapted screenplay, on top of glowing reviews across the board. Maybe I shouldn’t brush the film off as I had intended to. And having done so, I think I should thank the BAFTAs for convincing me to give Paddington a try. It may not be the best kids movie ever – and in the broad sense it is fairly standard. But when you start looking closer at the connective tissue within the hum-drum plot structure, you’ll find a lot of charm and wit.

Paddington posterLooking at it in the broad sense, Paddington is about as straightforward an adaptation of the original stories as possible. The titular bear is part one of a rare species that was taught English and the joys of mass marmalade (and presumably insulin) consumption by an English explorer. When an earthquake leaves young Paddington as one of the last of his kind, he follows the explorer’s advice and sets off for London, eventually falling in with a lovably dysfunctional family while drawing the attention of a villainous museum curator/taxidermist who wants to stuff Paddington to add to her collection. The story hits all the bases and embraces all the tropes you’d expect. Dad is a chronic worrywart, morally opposed to fun, who raises some (very real and legitimate) concerns about keeping the accident prone bear around, free to endanger his kids and lower his property values. Mum is a free spirit who just wants to help Paddington and help her husband be less of a tool and raise her children, who fall into the “embarrassed teenage girl” and “over-active younger boy” categories as neatly as pieces in a Perfection game. Of course, there are hijinks galore, a downturn in the second act when it seems all hope is lost, all culminating in a madcap rescue in the third act.

The “bones” of Paddington – the basic plot and story structure – are rigidly formulaic, as stayed and unchanged as they were in Stuart Little, Harry and the Hendersons, and every other ‘nuclear-family-takes-in-magical-stranger’ movie. But where things come alive for Paddington is in everything in between the court-mandated story beats. When the script is free to just have fun, the writing reveals itself to be clever enough that the adults will probably be chuckling more than the kids. There’s a lot of great wordplay, a killer cutaway gag, and this fun little Shakespeare joke that 95% of the North American audience is basically guaranteed not to get. If not for that damn earwax/toilet scene from the trailer, I’d almost call it classy or highbrow.

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There’s also a ton of visual style as well, and I get the sense that the director (or at least the production designer) is a Wes Anderson fan. A lot of the sets and locales have a very bright and colorful dollhouse quality, similar to Anderson’s style, but without that sense that you wouldn’t be allowed to touch anything if you were to walk around in it, if that makes any sense. There’s this one recurring scene that’s ripped straight out of Moonrise Kingdom, where the camera makes a series of pans around a cut-away set, although in Paddington‘s case there’s more image manipulation at play than when Anderson did it.

The cast is a good ensemble of British heavyweights, including Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, a brief voice cameo by Michael Gambon and Peter Capaldi, and they all do fine in what are basically stock roles. The only one who doesn’t seem to be pulling her weight is Nicole Kidman as the villain, in a performance so phoned in that I was asked if I would accept the charges before her first scene. She’s really just playing Cruella de Ville with a less obvious wig and a slightly more interesting motivation, and you can tell that she’s fairly bored with the part. Considering that Ben Wishaw was basically brought in to voice Paddington at the last minute after the departure of Colin Firth, he plays the roll well, getting across the wide-eyed innocent quality that was needed.

If you go on to Paddington‘s IMDB page, you’ll notice it has three writers. One, also the director, Paul King, is credited as having written the film, while the other two are credited as writing the ‘screen story.’ I think that’s really where Paddington‘s only real fault lies. It feels like a movie that was mapped out as a broad, paint-by-numbers family adventure, but then given a much more interesting and talented writer to actually fill in the blanks. There are scenes, lines of dialogue, and gags that are great. But when you look at what they all add up to, it’s only good. It’s a road well traveled with beautiful and interesting scenery. I can’t help but wonder what we would have gotten had King been given full freedom with the story and been allowed to craft a better narrative to hang his jokes on. Maybe if we get a sequel, he’ll get that chance. In the mean time, Paddington is still a great family movie with plenty for everyone to enjoy. Just don’t expect it to be the next Lego Movie.

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