Sunday, December 28, 2014

Paddington Is A Bland, But Not Unwatchable, Family Film.

The Good: Actors do well with virtual character and settings, Good special effects
The Bad: Simplistic plot, Inconsistent characterization, Monolithic characters
The Basics: Safe for families, Paddington is a tough sell for any audience because it never commits to either its child-friendly or adult-level concepts.

When it comes to the diminishing influence of the United States in media and entertainment, one need look no further than how films are released in the United States and overseas. I swear, I’ve been seeing preview trailers for Paddington in the movie theaters for the past year, but in the United States, it is not slated for release until mid-January. That makes it one of the last markets in the world to receive the film, which is a virtual reunion of Harry Potter castmembers along with other notables from the BBC (Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Geoffrey Palmer). While the UK gets any number of films before the U.S., it is a rare thing for them to get films over a month and a half early (and a rare thing for a movie with a strong British audience built-in to release virtually worldwide (Japan, Brazil, Australia, Greece, etc.) a month before U.S. audiences have the chance to watch it. I have no particular remembrance of Paddington the Bear from childhood, but from the first trailer that had the rain slicker and hat, I knew that Paddington was the subject of the film (before the name came up). So, even in the U.S., there is an iconic status to Paddington the Bear.

Paddington is a live-action family film where the main character is rendered via computer generated effects and voiced by a very human actor, in the style of The Smurfs (reviewed here!). More than The Smurfs, Paddington struggles to figure out who the audience for the film is intended to be. While The Smurfs was clearly a children’s movie playing off the nostalgia and international popularity of the magical characters, Paddington has a simplistic plot and a lot of dazzle that appeal to children, but a number of quick cutaway jokes that are likely to go so far over the heads of children that that can only be intended for adult audiences (some of them are legitimately funny, like Paddington’s imagination of the orphanage and then its Mr. Brown-rephrased version). Like The Smurfs, a stellar cast cannot save the otherwise mediocre film, though it is likely to entertain.

Deep in the jungles of Peru, an explorer discovers a completely new species of bear. While he is shocked that, in showing them his effects, he is able to get them to repeat words, he soon has to go back to his wife and family. Naming the bears Lucy and Pastuzo, the explorer returns to London, but invites the bears to look him up should they ever make it to the city. Many years later, Lucy and Pastuzo are taking care of their nephew, who is thrilled when the fruit ripens and Marmalade Day arrives (the day the smart bears spend making marmalade, like the explorer introduced them to). After Marmalade Day, the young bear (Paddington, though his bear name is a specific roar), gets wanderlust, stows away on a mail boat, which leads him to being deposited in London. There, he meets Mr. and Mrs. Brown and their children, Judy and Jonathan. The cautious Mr. Brown wants nothing to do with the bear, but Mrs. Brown’s compassion in seeing the lonely bear in the train station, leads her to strike up a conversation and take him in.

While Mrs. Brown is searching for the identity of the explorer and Mr. Brown is adjusting his insurance policy to cover having a bear in the house, Paddington (as they name him) acclimates himself to the bathroom. The result is a huge flood in the house, which upsets Mr. Brown. Lodging in the attic, Paddington writes home to Aunt Lucy, while Mr. Brown and his wife fight over keeping the bear in the house. Elsewhere in London, the villainous Millicent learns of the arrival of a bear who is obsessed with marmalade and she begins hunting for Paddington. The Browns take Paddington into London to meet with the authorities, but after Paddington gets separated and into some minor trouble, Mrs. Brown takes the bear out for tea at Mr. Gruber’s. Mr. Gruber uses Paddington’s hat as a lead and together Mrs. Brown and Paddington begin to hunt for the explorer, despite the tension it causes between Mr. and Mrs. Brown, while Millicent hunts for Paddington!

Much of the action and movement in Paddington comes from Paddington falling down or ending up in action-oriented sequences. He is carried with unrealistic buoyancy by an umbrella when trying to return a wallet to a pickpocket, he falls down on an escalator (and is not brutally torn apart, as would happen in real life), etc. The antics almost universally come from Paddington trying to do good deeds, while his size and lack of understanding of the modern world leads him to get into danger or fall around. Paddington is characterized as a universally good character and that puts him in conflict with Mr. Brown and Millicent.

Mr. Brown in Paddington is a good man, who has become incredibly over-cautious after having children. Mr. Brown is worldly and realistic and he acts as a foil to Paddington only on the level of experience. Mr. Brown questions Paddington’s story, which leads Paddington to stare him down, offended that Mr. Brown thinks the bear is lying. But Mr. Brown questioning Paddington’s story is healthy, normal skepticism, even if Paddington calls it a lack of manners. His character arc in Paddington evolves ridiculously quickly. By the time the film hits its halfway point, Mr. Brown is breaking into the hall of records in drag, so it is hard to take Paddington seriously as a story of realistic characters (albeit one might get that from the talking bear . . .). In other words, one of the problems with Paddington is that in trying to find its balance between children’s movie and entertainment that adults can enjoy, it fails to be satisfying to either.

Paddington has a more overt villain in the form of Millicent. Millicent tortures, interrogates, and manipulates her way to getting access to Paddington. Using the Browns’ neighbor, Mr. Curry, Millicent ruthlessly pursues Paddington. She is a monolithic villain with simplistic motivations and when the film turns into a weird twist on Home Alone, it loses much of its charm. That said, despite the knife-throwing, explosions, and threat to cut off the nose of the cab driver, there is nothing that is actually too tough for children to see in Paddington. Children aren’t likely to know what a taxidermist is, I suppose.

On the acting front, everyone does fine, though there are no truly superlative performances. Actress Nicole Kidman gets the chance to create a scene that mirrors ex-husband Tom Cruise’s iconic rappelling scene from Mission: Impossible (reviewed here!), though the rest of her time on screen is stuck plodding along in the role of a monolithic adversary, which does not give her much range to play with. That said, Kidman and her co-stars, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Peter Capaldi, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Matt Lucas all interact flawlessly with the virtual character. While this might be credited to the special effects department and director Paul King, the experience the performers have working with virtual characters and settings clearly pays off here. The actors get eyelines and movements right for interacting with the virtual Paddington.

But, at the end of the day, Paddington is ridiculously simplistic. The characters are generally one-dimensional, the performances are similarly limited and the morals are heavyhanded and obvious. Paddington is watchable, but perhaps the reason it was relegated to January is that its U.S. distributors knew it did not have the mettle to compete with even the lingering blockbusters in the new year.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
To Write Love On Her Arms
The Voices
Love, Rosie
The Seventh Son
Song One
American Sniper
Inherent Vice
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
The Imitation Game


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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