Here's a rare bird, er bear, indeed. Paddington is a family movie that really is for everyone, meaning neither kids nor grown-ups will squirm with boredom. Based on a series of Michael Bond books begun in 1958 and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, the movie likewise tells the tale of a Peruvian bear, in duffel coat and floppy red hat, adopted by a London family. How satisfying to report that the cinematic Paddington emerges as an irresistible charmbomb that has a nice habit of sneaking up on you instead of conking you on the head.
Credit writer-director Paul King and Harry Potter producer David Heyman for guiding this fable to the screen without the usual glossy overkill and goosed-up pyrotechnics. Paddington, voiced with genuine feeling by Ben Whishaw (a substitute for the originally cast Colin Firth), is introduced living the good life in the rainforest. Then, boom-squish, an earthquake hits and Paddington takes a cargo ship to London, where he dreams of a new beginning. Without too much fuss, the bear arrives at Paddington Station and is quickly adopted — at least temporarily — by the Brown family: blustery dad Henry (Hugh Bonneville, on leave from Downton but still very lord of the Abbey), his sweet wife Mary (the pricelessly appealing Sally Hawkins) and their two scrappy, moody children, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin). After a few guttural roars, the bear starts talking and in very British tones.
It's funny. So is Nicole Kidman, very Cruella De Vil as Millicent Clyde, a taxidermist with an eye on adding Paddington to her stuffed collection. It's an excuse for some chase scenes and physical comedy (Paddington gets his head stuck in a toilet bowl) that manage to suggest both the Marx brothers and Wes Anderson. I mean that as a good thing. The human actors interact playfully with the computer-generated bear, cleverly realized by the animators at London's Framestore, who worked on Gravity. The in-jokes are verbal and visual, managing to reference themes as diverse as immigration and insider trading without throwing the plot off course. Paddington has no super powers, though he does fly over London, but he does work his way into our hearts and minds. It's all very droll and quietly, memorably dazzling. "Please Look After This Bear" are the words written on a tag around Paddington's neck. Smart audiences will do as instructed.