"Paddington" brings children's book hero Paddington Bear to the screen in a movie as sweet as orange marmalade, as sentimental as a stuffed toy from childhood. It's an utterly charming and endlessly inventive way of bringing a talking bear into present day London, a film that uses all of the magic of the medium and our fond memories of Michael Bond's beloved bear to give him life.
In a black and white newsreel, we see the bear's origin story -- his "rarest of bears" family discovered by a "Jolly Good" British explorer in "Darkest Peru" in the 1950s. A present day earthquake sadly sends the bear off to London, where the explorer had assured his aunt and uncle bear that Londoners "will not have forgotten how to treat a stranger."
But they have. With only memorized, dated British slang from a "Advice for the Travellor in London" LP and a supply of his aunt's orange marmalade (she got the recipe from the explorer), the bear is lost in brusque, busy London. Until the busy, busy Browns see him, take pity on him, take him home and name him after a train station.
A simple scene, but having Mrs. Brown played by the eternally sympathetic Sally Hawkins ("Happy") makes it work. Naturally, her husband (Hugh Bonneville of "Downton Abbey") is against the idea. He's an insurance risk analyst.
"Seven percent of ALL accidents begin with jumping," he chastises their son (Samuel Joslin), who loves the bear in an instant. The snotty teenage daughter (Madeleine Harris) is on dad's side.
There's much kid-friendly kerfuffle about a bear lose in a modern toilet (toothbrushes can clean bear ears), a bear discovering vacuum cleaners and tea and cake. There are Brit cameos -- new "Doctor Who" Peter Capaldi is a nosy neighbor, Matt "Little Britain" Lucas is a cabbie and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is a German antiques dealer who may be able to figure out who the explorer was who invited bears to London.
And there's a villain. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman dons a blonde pageboy wig and turns her sexy whisper into a menacing one as a natural history museum taxidermist who would love to have "this specimen." Is he an endangered species?
"He is NOW," she hisses, practicing her knife-throws.
Ben Whishaw, the new "Q" in the James Bond movies, has an innocent, impeccably polite pitch to his voice that very much suits the bear. And the effects that put the bear on the screen are so good as to make you forget he's animated. This is a big, flowing fur leap from the animated teddy bear of "Ted."
Yes, this is a kid's movie and as such, not given to deep thinking or a challenging story. But British puns and British actors and British sights abound. And if you were ever an Anglophile, a fan of the books, or count yourself as a "Downton Abbey" devotee, the sense of place makes London feel inviting, adorable, and "rained, poured, drizzled or 'chucked it down' " wet.
Screenwriter/director Paul King manages lovely moments -- the antiques dealer recalls, in a toy train-sized flashback, his own orphaned journey to Britain before the Holocaust, Paddington's list of possible explorer addresses are scribbled, with directions, over shots of the London skyline, a Buckingham Palace guard serves Paddington tea and sandwiches he keeps tucked under his hat.
And Bonneville, who did mostly comedy, pre-"Downton," rediscovers his funny bone describing this ursine house guest to cops and insurers.
"Grizzly? Not particularly. Mind you, I haven't seen him in the MORNING."