Where to start with the wondrous whimsy of "Paddington"?
Artfully and cleverly, the sweet spirit of that young bear from darkest Peru and his many London misadventures materializes brilliantly on screen in the very good hands of writer-director-conjurer Paul King.
The beloved storybook character created by Michael Bond in the late 1950s and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum are the film's touchstones, the bear a creation of special effects, the people around him simply special. But rather than being inhibited by the great wellspring of affection that multiple generations of kids and parents have for Paddington, King seems liberated. (He was clearly just getting warmed up with the inventive but not-all-the-way-there "Bunny and the Bull.")
The filmmaker's taken care to ensure all the favorite story bits are there — the jungle, the marmalade, the hat, the adorable English-speaking fuzzy-wuzzy turning up in London with a "Please look after this bear" tag around his neck. But the departures, which are totally original, become inspired flights of fancy.
It gives the bear a formidable new villain in Millicent (Nicole Kidman in a strangely threatening white bob). She goes after the bear with an arched brow and some shiny taxidermy tools. He will make, you see, a fine stuffed specimen in the National History Museum's rare-beasts collection, which Millicent keeps, ahem, expanding.
But where would we be without the bear?
The voice and the spirit of the Peruvian cub are pure Ben Whishaw. The actor seems so completely overtaken by Paddington as to no longer exist. All that are left are bear and bewilderment, but charmingly so. I knew after seeing Whishaw bring the lovelorn John Keats to life in "Bright Star" that he had the soul of a poet. It serves the often-introspective Paddington well.
The visual effects add some serious magic of their own, starting with King's eccentric style. Whether umbrellas in the rain shot from above or a doll house with enchanting surprises behind its door, the way the director takes and toys with images elevate the film to a sort of surrealist art. The color palette is forever evolving, matching the mood of the moment and the particular person involved. From the invention to the precision, the sensibility feels a close cousin to that of filmmaker Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Of course, the most important special effects are reserved for Paddington. Physically, the bear functions with all the ease of the humans around him. Though the eyes do their part, exceptionally expressive, it is the naturalistic look when he's speaking that separates Paddington from all the comically bizarre talking CGI animals that populate movies and TV. Credit Framestore's Andy Kind as visual effects and CG supervisor and Pablo Grillo as animation director for taking such care with the creature creation.
Humor, in all its various forms, is another key ingredient. Paddington represents innocent mischief, which is countered by a very dry wit. It is there from the first frame — a black-and-white clip of an explorer explaining that his Peruvian find that does feel like a funny found object from the distant past.
When the story picks up next, we're still in the jungle where the bear who will become Paddington now lives with Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), marmalade sandwiches and stories of London, his command of the English language being refined by a gramophone and a record the explorer left behind. When an earthquake destroys that little bit of paradise, it is clear that London is where the young bear must find his future.
The underlying theme of the film, as it was in Bond's stories, is very much about fitting in and finding a home, or at least a safe haven, surrounded by those who will let you be yourself. For Paddington, it's the Browns, the family who stumbled across him fresh off the boat and looking ever so lost at Paddington Station. They are made up of "Downton Abbey's" upright earl, Hugh Bonneville, as the prickly patriarch Henry; Sally Hawkins (Oscar-nominated for "Blue Jasmine") absolutely delightful as Mary, his artistically inclined, softhearted wife; Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) there to keep the Browns' place at 32 Windsor Garden shipshape; and not-quite-teenage Judy (Madeleine Harris) and her younger brother, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), are in the difficult process of growing up.
King never forgets that the world he is building is one that Paddington is seeing for the first time. So that when a toy train starts whirring round in Mr. Gruber's (Jim Broadbent) antique shop, he begins to see what Mr. Gruber's train ride as a child to a distant country must have looked like, the train cars suddenly filling with people passing in the aisles, a boy in one seat looking out the window.
There is a great deal of action, all of it over the top in classic slapstick style. Some are disasters tied to Paddington getting used to things like toothbrushes and bathtubs. Some involve madcap dashing about, usually to escape Millicent's clutches. As the bear and the Browns go from one place to another, the film hits most of the major tourist sites, all of them looking as if they were lifted from a storybook.
MPAA rating: PG for mild action and rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In general release