Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movie Review: Paddington

After reading aloud A Bear Called Paddington in November and December, my 3 1/2 year old and I were very much looking forward to the movie. Saturday morning, we walked to a theater on the Promenade for the first show.

The movie stars Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) as Mr. Brown, Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine) as Mrs. Brown, and Nicole Kidman as Millicent Clyde - the villain.

The what? Villain? There's a villain in Michael Bond's A Bear Called Paddington? No, but evidently a bear joining a human family doesn't provide enough conflict. Having never brought a bear home to live with me, I don't know. Maybe it's an easy adjustment. Like getting a dog. But somehow I don't think it would be.

In the book, Paddington is a lot like having a three year old. He makes messes, doesn't understand everything adults mean which leads to problems, and repeatedly gets into situations where he needs help. But movies have a specific structure. The main character must not be passive, with conflict happening to him. He must be active, the maker of his own destiny. So the Paddington in the movie needs a mission. A journey.

The writers of Paddington created a plot in which Paddington is searching for the British explorer who discovered his species, taught them English, and told them they were welcome in London.

They also added Natural History Museum director/taxidermist Millicent Clyde (Kidman) to the story. Let me repeat that. Taxidermist. As in, someone who wants to kill Paddington. Kidman's character is Cruella DeVille meets Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. If your child can handle 101 Dalmatians - in which Cruella is out to do the same thing (ie. kill the main characters) - he or she can handle Paddington.

The movie starts in black and white, in Darkest Peru. We learn that this is a film made by British explorer Montgomery Clyde, a member of the Geographers' Guild. We also learn - but not right away, because it would be a really morbid way to start a children's movie - that Montgomery went to Darkest Peru to discover an undiscovered animal species, bring it back to London, and have it killed, stuffed, and mounted, and make a name for himself by putting the animal on display in London's Natural History Museum.

Montgomery discovers a couple of bears he names Lucy (Aunt Lucy) and Pastuzo. Montgomery has carried an excess of his British belongings into the rainforest, including marmalade, a grandfather clock, his red hat, a record player, and a record giving conversation lessons for someone wishing to visit London. This is to explain how a bear learned to speak, and why he speaks with a British accent.

I guess one of my problems with this movie is that I don't need an explanation. When I opened the book to its first page, I was able to suspend disbelief and let author Michael Bond take me into his London. I didn't need to know why Paddington left Peru, or why he liked marmalade, or why he was polite.

Fast forward forty years. We are still in Darkest Peru, in the rain forest, vivid green foliage. Paddington, an orphan, lives with Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo in their treehouse, Rube Goldberg orange marmalade-making (because it wouldn't be a children's movie without multiple Rube Goldberg machines), and listening to the English conversation record. While I didn't like that the writers added back-story, I thought the scenes in Darkest Peru were done very well and definitely hooked the viewer. Bears talking and having human facial expressions has been done before, but bears that look like bears, now that's amazing. The special effects are excellent.

So there they are in their treehouse when - all of a sudden - there's an earthquake. The bears hurry to safety in their underground shelter. It's like the twister scene in The Wizard of Oz with everyone running for the cellar. Aunt Lucy and Paddington make it, but Uncle Pastuzo does not.

Explorer looking for animal to kill. Dead Uncle Pastuzo. Paddington explaining that his parents died and that he was raised by his aunt and uncle. A scene in which a man brings Kidman's character a monkey to kill and stuff, to - you know - show that Millicent is a two-dimensional meanie who kills innocent creatures. Kidman's character's primary objective: killing Paddington. That's just a whole lotta death for a kid's movie.

None of this is in the book. If it had been, I most definitely wouldn't have read it to my preschooler. (In fact, I read it to my preschooler because A Bear Called Paddington is sweet; there's not a bit of snark.)

After the earthquake, Aunt Lucy and Paddington come up out of the shelter to see that - and I had a problem with this - the earthquake had somehow leveled the forest. Huh?

My husband and I have a line we use for moments like this: And that's the part you don't believe? You went to see a movie about a bear who talks, emigrates from Peru to England by stowing away on a ship, and then is adopted into a human family, and the part you don't believe is how his home was destroyed? Yes. But I digress...

Aunt Lucy decides it's time for Paddington to go to London, so they canoe down the Amazon, and Aunt Lucy hides Paddington in a covered lifeboat on a ship carrying cargo to England. This scene made me a little teary eyed. Aunt Lucy, voiced by Imelda Staunton, puts a tag - the tag ("Please look after this bear. Thank you.") - around Paddington's neck and tells him about the child evacuees during World War II. She tells Paddington that the children wore tags like this, and waited in the train station, and families took them home. It's Imelda Staunton's voice. The way she assures Paddington that a family will take him home. It's more than telling him that someone will shelter him. It's that someone will love him. But it's coupled with her telling Paddington that she will be okay and that she's going to The Home For Retired Bears, but that he's too young to retire. There is something in the way she says it that made me believe there was no Home. And then I worried. About a fictional bear. I was sad because I thought she was lying to Paddington, and that she was really going to leave him and go somewhere to die. (But she didn't. *Sigh of relief.*)

Paddington makes his way to the Paddington Train Station, where he is found by the Brown family. Mr. Brown tells them to keep walking, but Mrs. Brown can't leave Paddington all alone. 

And now I have to rave about Sally Hawkins. She plays quirky and whimsical so well because under the quirk and whimsy, there's love, and under the love there's longing. The character she plays in Paddington is Mrs. Brown, an illustrator for adventure stories, who is currently illustrating a book set in the London sewers (not in the book, but integral to the plot of the movie).

The relationship between Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown is one of the subplots of the movie. Again, not in the book. But I really liked the way this subplot was resolved. Loved it actually.

Hugh Bonneville was, as always, wonderful. He plays a risk analyst. In the book, Mr. Brown's career is never mentioned, but risk analyst is the perfect profession for this character. My favorite line of Bonneville's was - if memory serves me correctly - "Thirty-three percent of all accidents that happen before breakfast involve banisters." I laughed out loud.

A couple of parts that I did not need in the movie were 1)the flirtation of the nosy neighbor with Kidman's character, and 2)the flirtation of the guard at the Geographers' Guild with Mr. Brown disguised as a Mrs. Doubtfire-esque cleaning lady. The guard at the Geographers' Guild needed to be older to make that bit work for me, and I'm pretty sure he called the disguised Mr. Brown "sexy," which is a vocabulary word I don't want my preschooler going around saying. It went over her head, thankfully, but if that's the case, why put it in there at all? Movie-makers, when you make the sequel, leave stuff like that out; it doesn't add to the story-line.

Because the book is appropriate for preschoolers, one would assume the movie would also be appropriate for preschoolers. If you're trying to decide whether to take your preschooler to this movie, I would have to say that it really depends on your child. Are they easily scared? Can they sit through a full-length live-action film?

The book has an independent reading level of 5.7, meaning that 5th graders should be able to read the book. Scholastic Book Wizard lists the interest level as 3rd through 5th grades, which I think is silly. And sad. Because people blindly trust Scholastic Book Wizard when they shouldn't. Little ones WILL be interested in this book. Scholastic Book Wizard also lists some horror and supernatural books at the same independent reading level, and I can tell you, as a public school teacher, that 5th graders who can read at a 5.7 will not reach for Paddington. They will reach for Ghosts I Have Been.

My point in all of that is: The movie seems to have been made for 3rd to 5th graders, the interest level listed by the Book Wizard.

I was really curious as to what Michael Bond, the book's author, thought about the movie. He did approve of the film and actually made a cameo in the movie. When Paddington first arrives in London, and the Brown's are taking a taxi home, Paddington is looking out the window. He sees a man sitting at a table, drinking a glass of red wine, and the man raises his glass to Paddington.

My daughter and her three-year-old friend were both scared in parts, but not so scared that they cried or asked to leave.

One scary scene was when Kidman's character lowers herself - with her tranquilizer gun - into the Brown's house while Paddington is home alone. Paddington runs into the kitchen, accidentally turns on the gas on the stove, and then HIDES IN THE REFRIGERATOR. (Inside I was screaming: Movie-makers, do not suggest to children that this is a hiding place!) And then, predictably, when Nicole Kidman enters the kitchen and is looking for Paddington, and she opens the oven, an explosion blows her out of the kitchen and into the entryway. Seriously? In Paddington? An explosion? People shooting guns? Ugh.

In the final battle - SPOILER ALERT - Paddington crawls up an incinerator's chimney. I'm cringing writing this. An incinerator. Fire. More fire. Ugh. Paddington uses two Dustbusters to crawl up the chimney. And then Kidman's character lights the incinerator. One Dustbuster goes dead. "It's okay, honey," I whispered. "It's okay. Don't worry. The Browns are going to save him. Movies always have happy endings." Then the other Dustbuster starts to lose power. Of course it does. So Paddington jumps. And just as you think he's going to grab the top and be able to climb out, he doesn't. He falls backwards toward the flames. In screenwriting, this is known as the "all is lost" moment. In motherhood, this is known as the "why did I bring my three year old to this movie to traumatize her with fear that her friend is going to die a grisly death" moment. And then the Brown's grab his feet. *Sigh.*

I have such mixed feelings about this movie. Is it a classic? A must-see? A DVD I must own? No. And I'm bummed about that. It had the potential to be such. But the screenwriters turned it into a video game. The book has mystery, and mystery is an invitation to imagination. All that said, I didn't hate it. I am disappointed that, once again, a classic book has been changed into a story that only tips its (red) hat at the original.

*image from Wikipedia


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this review, very helpful as I make a decision to bring my kids. I wish they had just made a movie about Paddington making messes and such -- for small children.