Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Paddington, or "Sometimes Precious Childhood Memories Aren't Butchered When Adapted."



There is always a risk when bringing a beloved childhood tale into the money-soaked waters of big budget filmmaking. Many times the transition from the imagination to CGI can leave a bitter taste. Such was the case when it came to the Chronicles of Narnia, which I think were lucky to make it as far as The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Not that there was much interest for A Boy and his Horse or The Silver Chair for most, if I recall, but still.

When it came to the trailer for Paddington, which I remember fondly as a BBC stop-motion television series based on the books by Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum, I remember being very, very cynical, saying to myself “what’s this computer generated, NON-stuffed animal monstrosity” (a bit of irony there, but more on that later)? Of course, that was the intellectual portion of my mind being cogent and eloquent. What I actually said out loud was more to the effect of “what the fuck?”

And, really, just looking at the trailer, Paddington looks like a train wreck of an adaptation. Treated purely to the comical scene where the ursine houseguest uses “the facilities” in gross and increasingly disastrous fashion, Paddington looks more like a Farrelly Brothers-lite feature than a clever and charming look at post-war Britain.

In that, I think Paddington was done a great disservice.

While there are many moments in Paddington that feel forced and more than a little cheesy, for the most part it is a sweet, heart-warming story about the importance of family with many moments of off-beat humor that serve to strengthen the feel of the film’s given circumstances as opposed to working against it (see Spongebob visiting the live-action world in theaters soon). Whether it’s Marmalade Day or an overly-complicated pneumatic tube system, Paddington is mostly filled is small moments of whimsy that would seem utterly ridiculous in any other context but feel right at home when dealing with a talking bear and the family that slowly thaws in their feelings towards him.

Paddington, the character, is just as much a polite, warm figure prone to inadvertent mischief and endearing earnestness that I remember fondly. Sure, he’s a bit more active and curious than I recall his stop-motion forbearer bearing some thirty-odd years ago, but the soul of the character is still there for me. I find myself happy with Ben Whishaw’s vocal performance. While the CGI creation that is Paddington Bear is by no means as impressive as Smeagol was for LotR, the walking, talking bear is close enough for film and not annoying or distracting like his adapted CGI cousins Alvin, Garfield, and the Smurfs.

The lion’s share of the empathy in the film comes from its female lead, Sally Hawkins, whom we last saw in The Double a month or so ago here on The Void Zone. While not quite the extreme quirky/artsy mother type we’re used to in films like this, she still manages to deliver enough weirdness to be interesting while still portraying a kind and loving mother figure.

Hugh Bonneville is probably the most noticeable figure in the film (aside from Nicole Kidman’s villainess), and he alternately plays Paddington’s foil and sidekick with decent comedic timing. I suppose the cross-dressing humor was a bit of a stretch on the credulity, especially when it came to the “false arm” bit, but the only criticism I have for his performance is mostly due to the script being lacking. 
 
Hugh can only give as much as he’s given to work with and it’s hard to feel much emotion when Mr.Brown finally puts his foot down when you know there’s a happy end only one brief action sequence away. Most movies done well manage to trick you into caring at these turns of events, the fact that Paddington strains in this department is a weakness.

Another weakness is Nicole Kidman. Playing a vengeance driven taxidermist for the London Natural History Museum who wants to "stuff" poor Paddington (there's the irony), her storyline is supported more by her occasionally clever dialogue with current Doctor Who Peter Capaldi, who plays the Brown’s surly neighbor, Mr.Curry. Kidman’s motivations are a silly third act reveal and most of the strengths of her scenes are purely from the sight gags. That said, it’s good to see her (and Capaldi).

The technical aspects of Paddington, mostly featured in the bear, himself, don’t antagonize like I thought they would from the trailer. There are a few other moments of featured special effects, like the shifting seasons of the Brown’s house tree, but for the most part Paddington is a subdued and practical film filled with quiet, well, British humor. While I would've preferred the stuffed, stop-motion Paddington that I'm used to, perhaps done by the folks over at Studio Laika, I'm not hugely disappointed by what has been done here.

Overall, the film is a little less storybook and a little more flowchart than I should like it to be, and it definitely could’ve captured more of the original’s charm... as far as adaptations go, I find Paddington to be really rather sweet. Sure, it’s predictable and its conflicts lack both believability and impact, the heart of the film is strong enough to support it as a whole, enough for me to give it a decent recommendation. It’s not going to win any awards, but it is definitely a pleasure to watch.

3/5

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