Emerson argued that each flourish and tendril of a work of art has its exact corollary in the mind of the artist, that creative expression is always, in its way, a sort of autobiography: Want to know the person? Look at her works. But Ralph Waldo never lived to see committee-crafted kiddo flicks, especially those of the CG era. Laid open, a movie like Rio 2 or Planes: Fire & Rescue reveals not so much the mind of its creators, but what its creators think of the minds of their audience: that the children of America (and the world) are crass and easily distractible dullards, and not worth taking seriously as, like, people.
Not so with Paddington, Paul King's live adaptation of Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum's warmhearted (and thoroughly un-crass) bear-in-the-city illustrated chapter books. The director and writers and producers and cast seem to believe that kids aren't monsters — and that 50-year-old children's lit is only a little bit fusty.
The film's not quite the quiet hug of the books, where visiting the theater or an auction house is plot enough, but it's far from the noisome Penguins of Madagascar experience. A smartly bobbed Nicole Kidman plays a Cruella de Vil–type villain, eager to stuff Paddington for the British Museum, and there's a couple of chases and home-destroying comic set pieces, the best of which involves a torrent of bathwater and suggests both the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera and the blood elevators from The Shining.
Yes, the idea of Paddington parasailing through London in accidental chase after a pickpocket wouldn't be out of place in Kevin James's Zookeeper, but the joyous grace of the finished scene has few analogues in multiplexes. The sequence isn't busy, garish, and clanging, like the clever but endless fracases of the Toy Storys, and the filmmakers actually bother to summon some wonder when Paddington takes improbable flight. The bear, an orphan from "darkest Peru," finds his new city marvelous, and his soaring over it is a chance to relish its beauty.
The scale of the occasional mayhem is heightened, but its spirit and ingenuity doesn't feel wholly at odds with the books, either: There's just enough Hollywood hurly-burly to make this qualify as a 2015 release for kids — and just enough last-century picture-book gentleness to make it feel separate from our time.
What's most edifying, here, is all the live-action playfulness: a witty script, precisely mad performances, production design that's part Wes Anderson dollhouse, part old-London crampedness, and part educational toy store. Director King's cast is appealingly dotty, especially Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as a mom and dad who take in the bear they discover stranded at Paddington Station. The father is a safety-minded actuary who spouts statistics that are just plain crackers: "Thirty-four percent of pre-breakfast accidents involve banisters!" Mom's a ragamuffin illustrator endowed with eyes as wide and arresting as any computer-generated critter's. Better still: the smile that's always just unloosening itself, irrepressible proof of all the batty good humor her husband pretends not to relish. Kidman's also a crackpot pleasure, giving poisonous bite to King's best lines, like the there-goes-the-neighborhood speech where she insists the new bear in town is just the first of a migrant horde that will corrupt the great city with "raucous, all-night picnics." (And her clothes, from costume designer Lindy Hemming, are divine: Think Teddy Roosevelt as an SS Girl Scout.)
The kids are funny, too, as are the quirks of their characters. The daughter has a rare command of languages, and she teachers herself to growl like a bear, but that's not as amusing as the Chinese for Business Travelers tapes we overhear: "I have been accused of insider trading and require legal representation." The boy, meanwhile, is subordinate in a way I've never seen in a family-takes-in-an-impossible-creature story — the movie never becomes about his special bond with the bear. Likewise, the parents here are never the usual killjoys who must be lied to. Instead, they're the goofiest of all, instigating the adventure rather than shutting it down.
The movie employs real actors and a CG bear. Paddington himself, voiced by Ben Whishaw, is fine, but he's also the movie's chief failing. He never comes fully alive as a character. He's a bear who wants a home — and finds one in nothing flat. He inadvertently causes minor disasters, but he's immediately forgiven — sometimes even celebrated. Occasionally a shot aping Fortnum's original drawings will stir some feeling. There's some power in seeing Paddington sitting before an attic window, gazing out at the city, wishing he weren't alone — but there would be even more if we ever suspected he were alone. He's loved pretty much from the get-go, but even that's somewhat refreshing. Here's a kids movie mostly stripped of manufactured, go-nowhere plot crises!