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'Paddington' review: A new version of an old classic

An English boy meets a talking bear at

An English boy meets a talking bear at a London train station in "Paddington," a new movie out Friday based on the children's books by Michael Bond. Credit: StudioCanal

"A Bear Called Paddington," the 1958 book by Michael Bond that became an enduring franchise, told the story of a well-mannered little bear who travels from Peru to London and is adopted by the Brown family. Named for the station where he's found, Paddington is British through and through, inspired partly by the thousands of school-age children evacuated by train from London during World War II. "Paddington," written and directed by Paul King, arrives on American movie screens Friday following a successful $122 million run overseas.

"Paddington" has much to recommend it, starting with its fine cast. Sally Hawkins plays the kindly Mrs. Brown, Hugh Bonneville her joyless husband (a role akin to George Banks in "Mary Poppins") and the great Julie Walters sauces up the role of Mrs. Bird, the family's housekeeper. The Brown children (Samuel Joslin and Madeleine Harris), however, remain rather underdeveloped characters.

If you've ever wondered about Paddington's backstory, the movie provides one. It opens with a black-and-white newsreel of an English explorer who is stunned to discover that the Peruvians -- or at least the bears -- are intelligent. This is one of the film's best and funniest ideas, a gentle send-up of the colonialism in children's books from "Babar" to Rudyard Kipling. It also resurfaces later in a clever way.

King's script doesn't always meet that same high standard. The "Paddington" books were mostly just a series of amusing disasters (much like H.A. Rey's "Curious George" books), and the film faithfully follows suit. These set pieces can get a bit repetitive, but things liven up when Nicole Kidman appears as Millicent, a crazed taxidermist in go-go boots and a stripper wig. She's a wonderfully absurd villain, and Kidman's sexy-scary performance -- possibly the sole reason for the film's PG rating -- is a real treat.

One nagging problem is the visual rendering of Paddington himself. Paddington is a computer-animated creation who has the plump stature of a cartoon figure but the moist eyes and pink mouth of a real animal. The in-between effect can be disconcerting. Paddington's lovability is due largely to Ben Whishaw, who gives him the voice of a friendly, sensitive schoolboy.

Young viewers, however, probably won't quibble. "Paddington" may not have the makings of a classic, but it's smarter and better-crafted than the average children's movie.

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