Never judge by appearances. The poster image for "Paddington," already a hit in Britain, depicts the valiant little bear in the red hat and blue jacket careening down a flooded staircase in a bathtub, and the image (from the first of creator Michael Bond's 26 "Paddington" books) is rendered in such a way as to make the film look pushy and twee and eminently skippable.
And yet the film isn't any of those things. It's witty and charming, with a considerable if sneaky emotional impact. True, there is a not-insignificant storytelling misjudgment in adapter/director Paul King's picture, but enough goes right here to satisfy Paddington lovers and Paddington newbies alike.
Word on the movie was dicey ever since Colin Firth, originally hired to do the voice of the famous bear, was let go (Colin Firth! Let go!) in favor of the more youthful and sweeter-sounding voice provided by Ben Whishaw. The younger actor turns out to be excellent, so the lesson here is: Let Colin Firth go if you must. Whishaw brought a tear to my eye with his reading of a single word ("home"), arriving at a key point late in the picture. It's wonderfully in keeping with the spirit of the Bond books (the first appeared in 1958), which have led to a British TV series and an awful lot of cuddly bear merchandise.
Graced with unusually delicate computer-generated animation mixed with live action, "Paddington" retains elements of the first book, ropes in bits of other books and invents a lot of its own. In "darkest Peru," an English explorer discovers a tribe of highly advanced and surprisingly verbal bears. An earthquake takes the life of one guardian; the surviving guardian sends off our hero to London via freighter, accompanied by copious orange marmalade.
Bond's stroke of genius led him to create the key image of Paddington, alone, on a London railway platform with a tag around his neck reading: "Please look after this bear. Thank you." Post-World War II Britain had vivid memories of refugee after refugee of the human species, on countless platforms, hoping for new lives of relative safety and comfort.
The film respects that inspiration. In writer-director King's film, the adoptive human family Paddington finds is played by Hugh Bonneville (Mr. Brown, here a stuffy risk analyst recalling Mr. Banks of "Mary Poppins"), Sally Hawkins (Mrs. Brown, a children's book illustrator and a complete joy) and, as the Brown children, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin. As humans and bear learn to negotiate a life under the same roof, "Paddington" introduces the native Peruvian to Notting Hill and thereabouts, with the film's fetching calypso score coloring the action. The Browns may be white bread, ethnically speaking, but Paddington himself delivers the thesis line, dear to the multicultural ideal: "In London, nobody's alike, which means everyone fits in."
Now for the misstep. "Paddington" invents a fearsome adversary for the bear, a Cruella de Vil-brand taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) intent on killing and stuffing our pal. She has her reasons, and they're not uninteresting reasons, but the movie bends into a slightly uncomfortable and off-putting shape to accommodate the antagonist. Such is the chipper goodwill of both Paddington and "Paddington" that you forgive the flaws. And any movie that manages to work in a dig at the National Theatre's heavier pretensions -- in a subway sequence, Paddington trots by a National poster for a (fake) play with the amusingly dour title "Damned by Despair" -- is OK with me.
MPAA rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor).
Running time: 1:29.