[Screen It]


(2014) (voice of Ben Winshaw, Hugh Bonneville) (PG)

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Family Dramedy: A British family takes in a young, talking bear and tries to help him find an explorer from long ago, all while a sadistic taxidermist wants to get her hands on him.
Long ago in deepest, darkest Peru, British explorer Montgomery Clyde (TIM DOWNIE) discovered a small number of intelligent bears, and named them Uncle Pastuzo (voice of MICHAEL GAMBON) and Aunt Lucy (IMELDA STAUNTON). Not only did he teach them how to speak English, but he also introduced them to marmalade and invited them to visit London where they'd certainly be welcomed by all.

Years later, the two bears are living happily with their young nephew (voice of BEN WHISHAW) when a terrible earthquake strikes. With Uncle Pastuzo gone and their home destroyed, Aunt Lucy puts her nephew on a boat headed for London, hoping he'll find the past explorer as well as a good home and future.

But the young bear doesn't know what to do upon his arrival. Thankfully, Mary Brown (SALLY HAWKINS) decides that she, her husband, Henry (HUGH BONNEVILLE), and their kids, Judy (MADELEINE HARRIS) and Jonathan (SAMUEL JOSLIN), should give the bear -- who she's named Paddington (voice of BEN WHISHAW), after a train station stop -- a place to stay for the night.

That doesn't sit well with their nosey neighbor, Mr. Curry (PETER CAPALDI), while Henry -- who's a risk analyst by trade -- thinks it's a bad idea, and Judy doesn't want to be bothered, what with being embarrassed by her family already. But Jonathan is happy to have Paddington there, as is their housekeeper, Mrs. Bird (JULIE WALTERS), while Mary makes it her mission to help the bear find the explorer. Someone interested in getting her hands on Paddington, however, is Millicent (NICOLE KIDMAN), a sadistic taxidermist who wants to stuff the bear and put him on display in the British Natural History Museum.

As she sets her sights on doing that, Mary and eventually the rest of the family not only chip in to help Paddington find Montgomery, but also start to feel like he's a member of their family.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Everyone's familiar with the usual number of major film genres, be that comedies, horror films, action pics, dramas and so on. Within those and sometimes appearing in one or more of them are thematic categories. You know, like coming of age tales, tearjerker romances, disease of the week melodramas, slapstick comedies and such. One of my favorites, regardless of where it falls in the main genre world, is the so-called "fish out of water" story.

While I understand the descriptive name -- about a character being thrust into an unfamiliar environment -- it's an odd choice considering that few fish, save for snakeheads and perhaps a few other species, can survive for long out of water. If they're absent from their usual surroundings for any amount of time, they usually kick the bucket (okay, not literally as they obviously don't have feet), and that's not what most moviegoers are interested in seeing.

Instead, they want to watch the likes of Marty McFly ("Back to the Future"), Josh Baskin ("Big") and Mike Dundee ("Crocodile Dundee") react to unfamiliar surroundings. As a storytelling technique, it's quite useful in getting the audience to sympathize with the protagonist, while also sometimes making interesting points about commonplace items, behaviors and what have you coming off as peculiar, confusing or amusing to those not familiar with them.

There's more of the former than the latter in the latest fish out of water movie, although bear out of water - um, bear out of the woods and thrust into the city -- would be more accurate in the case of "Paddington." Named after and featuring the lovably polite bear who's been entertaining kids of all ages for more than 50 years, mostly in book form, the film uses the familiar plot setup to its full advantage.

As written and directed by Paul King, the offering is chockfull of cheeky British humor, immediately apparently in some old archival, black and white footage of a Brit explorer (Tim Downie) who ventured to "deepest, darkest Peru" only to discover a small number of hyper intelligent bears (voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton) that could even pull off rudimentary English. It's a fun and funny start to the film that then jumps forward a number of years to those same bears now taking care of their young nephew who's particularly fond of marmalade.

Their idyllic world is shattered when -- cue the Disney-esque Grim Reaper -- a massive earthquake strikes and one of the parent-like bears doesn't make it. The survivor sends her young charge off to London (as a stowaway) in hopes that he'll find the explorer who earlier assured them that all Londoners were quite accepting of those in need.

When the bear ends up across the pond (and then some), he isn't sure what to do, but is rescued by a woman (Sally Hawkins) who convinces her husband (Hugh Bonneville) and their two kids (Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) to take in the bear and help him achieve his goal. That's when the majority of the fish out of water shenanigans commence, including Paddington (named by the mom after a train station stop) being perplexed by common household bathroom items.

King doesn't stop with just that familiar device, and instead employs a highly imaginative filmmaking style, often deploying creative and interesting visuals to accessorize the story in delightful ways. That ranges from using some tree themed wallpaper in the Browns' household to represent the place and mood of the story at any moment, to fun little bits of homage to past movies ranging from "Singin' in the Rain" to "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Along the way, and as to be expected but no less touching and endearing, the bear finds what he outwardly needs, while the family gets what they don't realize they've been longing for. Viewers of all ages should enjoy the film from start to finish, although it does lose a bit of steam in the third act when what had been a minor subplot takes over the story.

That features Nicole Kidman as a sadistic taxidermist who wants to get her hands on Paddington and fill him with stuffing, not for dinner, but to be put on display in the museum where she works (to, as it turns out, take care of some unresolved daddy issues from her childhood). It doesn't derail the proceedings, and everything ends on an upbeat note, but the action and suspenseful peril isn't handled as cleverly as the earlier material, although there are some laughs to be had during those late in the game moments.

The only thing I can't figure out is why the studio postponed the release of this film (at least stateside) from the Christmas holiday movie season to the somewhat discarded toy period of mid January. Perhaps they thought the "family friendly" market was already too crowded with the "Annie" remake and latest "Night at the Museum" installment.

Whatever the case, this is easily the best of those three offerings by a wide margin. Filled with wit, adventure, comedy, lots of heart, and yes, fish out of water material, "Paddington" should make most everyone who sees it feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I highly recommend it and thus rate the film a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 5, 2015 / Posted January 16, 2015

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