While the marketing campaign makes Paddington look like one of those slapstick, stomach flu-inducing, lowest common denominator kiddie movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks or Smurfs, in reality, it shares more of its DNA with classier fare like Babe: Pig in the City or The Black Stallion or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, honoring the intelligence of children and their parents and employing its kid-lit source material as sharp-eyed, warmhearted allegory for our present day sensibilities (and follies).
Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) voices the title bear, taking over for the originally cast Colin Firth. In between the expert CGI animation of this ursine lad from deepest, darkest Peru and the earnestly winsome vocal work of Whishaw, Paddington is a complete charmer.
He is aided and abetted in the charisma department by luminously winning Sally Hawkins (so excellent in Blue Jasmine) and crusty Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) as the matriarch and patriarch (respectively) of the Brown family who discover the little bear as he desperately waits at Paddington train station with nothing but his signature hat, a tag that reads “please look after this bear,” one marmalade sandwich (for emergencies), and his battered suitcase. He hopes that someone … anyone … will take him “home” (though he isn’t quite sure where … or what … that is).
Me as Paddington for Halloween
Paddington and me at Christmas
Based on Michael Bond’s classic book series, the film stays true to the original narrative: a plucky bear is sent from Peru to London after he loses his uncle to an earthquake and after his aunt moves into a “retirement home for bears.” The aunt and uncle had met a world-explorer from England decades prior, and the geographer told them that they would always have a home in London should they so want it.
Paddington’s aunt sends Paddington off on a steamer ship, and eventually he lands in the aforementioned train station (for which he is eventually named). The Browns offer to give Paddington shelter until he can find said explorer, with Mr. Brown reluctantly warming to the little bear’s charms (after Paddington nearly demolishes the Browns’ home trying to understand human domestic customs).
In a deviation from the text, Nicole Kidman (channeling pretty much the same icily harmless villain she portrayed in The Golden Compass) plays a Cruella De Vil-esque taxidermist, anxious to make Paddington part of her collection. The subplot is unnecessary, but ultimately harmless (thank goodness!).
The film’s secret weapon is Hawkins whose genial sweetness toward the lovably inept Paddington had me near tears a half dozen times in the film. Hawkins’ Mrs. Brown is Paddington’s champion (and by extension the champion of anyone who has felt rudderless and sad, well-intentioned but confused at any point in their lives). She gives the film such heart, coupled with a cinematic Paddington whose expressive features convey those of every creature you’ve ever seen forlorn in an animal shelter.
Yes, there is plenty of silliness to keep the youngest audience members enthralled, but blessedly the goofy hijinks are kept to a minimum and always in service to the story, a narrative about making the best family you can with people (human and otherwise) you love and cherish for the spark they bring.
The cast is rounded with a who’s who of classic British talents: Julie Walters as a flinty housekeeper, Jim Broadbent as a twinkly shopkeeper, Peter Capaldi as a nosy neighbor, and Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as the voices of Paddington’s uncle and aunt.
Director Paul King, not unlike George Miller and his work on the exquisite Babe films, gives us a film that approximates beautifully the feel of reading a children’s picture book. In just the right amount so as not to seem gimmicky, King employs animation and miniatures (see: his very clever use of a dollhouse in the Browns’ attic) to illustrate and heighten the narrative in ingenious and magical ways. Such sure-handed and thoughtful direction is rarely seen in a film of this nature – he is one to watch.
Ignore the tone-deaf commercials and go see Paddington. It is a delight for the mind and the heart.
Reel Roy Reviews 2
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The first concert I ever attended (at least that I remember) was when my parents took this eighth grader to see Bobby McFerrin at the much-vaunted Holidome in Crown Point, Indiana. Just take a moment and let that sentence settle in … and try to contain your envy. Yes, some kids in the late 80s went to see Madonna or Aerosmith or MC Hammer or New Kids on the Block, but for me it was Bobby McFerrin all the way. And this was before “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” So there.
The show was in the round, with just McFerrin and maybe a piano. I can’t recall. But with his phenomenal, otherworldly musicality, he rattled (largely acapella) through two hours of amazing numbers, not to mention his complete re-creation of the entire film The Wizard of Oz, including that iconic “I’m melting!” bit.
Flash forward, nearly 30 years (sigh), and I find myself yet again riding along in the backseat of my parents’ car, on our way to see another Baby Boomer mainstay Randy Newman, this time in Indianapolis. Nothing takes you back to the feeling of being a child like riding in the backseat of your parents’ car on a long car trip – that intoxicating mix of comfort and powerlessness as you cruise down the road listening to the squabbling and the laughter, to music you don’t recognize and familial history references you do. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.
So it is with this context that we took in Newman’s concert at Carmel, Indiana’s palatial music hall, the Palladium at the Center for Performing Arts. Such a musical hall Indiana has never before seen – a concert venue that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher, if overdosed with Benzedrine by Liberace’s hairdresser, after visiting the Palace of Versailles or Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.” It really is beautiful and strange, with a byzantine entrance and egress system that made me feel like I was playing Milton Bradley’s Mousetrap.
However, there isn’t a bad seat in the house (nor a reasonably priced one), with Phantom of the Opera-esque box seats at every turn, polished cherry and marble floors, phenomenal acoustics and lighting, and super-cushy chairs.
As we sat there taking in the opulence, Newman lumbered on stage, after a loving introduction by Michael Feinstein himself. You see, Feinstein, a Columbus, Ohio native, helped get the Center established five or so years ago, alongside his husband Terrence Flannery, as a permanent monument to the Great American Songbook and to our musical theater traditions. The space also houses The Great American Songbook Foundation, which is very much worth visiting if you have some time to spare before a show there. They are great about arranging tours.
Roy and Susie waiting for the big show
For over two hours, it was just Newman, his piano, and a very responsive audience. Newman isn’t quite the showman that McFerrin was/is – likely an unfair comparison since they’re such different artists, and I am judging them across a divide of 30 years. Ah well.
But what Newman lacked in showmanship, he made up in shaggy charm. He would periodically play wrong notes, stop, look up at the audience, shake his head, and say things like, “I never was a very good pianist.” Then, he would dive back into plunking out notes for many of his signature songs like “I Love L.A.,” “Short People,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”
A highlight for me was his performance of “Love Story (You and Me),” a Newman tune covered previously by artists as diverse as Harry Nilsson, Lena Horne, and Harry Belafonte. The song is a poignant charmer and has not aged a bit. Newman delivered it with aplomb, his frogs-and-molasses voice the perfect accent to the song’s lilting, loping melody.
Newman peppered his set-list, which pretty much seemed made up as he went along, with anecdotes about his life as a child of Los Angeles, as a child of the 60s, and as a child of a movie soundtrack dynasty (he is the nephew of acclaimed film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman and the cousin of Thomas Newman). The casual vibe he affected was on the whole delightful, though a bit more preparation and variety would have benefited the slow-going second act.
An artist of Newman’s caliber with such an accomplished history in pop, theater, and movie music is pretty much just going to do whatever the hell he wants, so that’s just fine. It is unlikely he will come this way again, so we are grateful we got the chance to see him.
Newman at piano
I never realized just how many songs the man has written about cities and/or states: Baltimore, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Louisiana. And he performed them all. They follow a similar formula, with snarky verses that alternate with hypnotic repetition of said geography’s name. He worked in a wink and a nod to his Hoosier hosts, noodling through “On the Banks of the Wabash” and “Back Home Again in Indiana,” at one point looking around the beautiful Palladium and cheekily observing, “What a dump.”
His show was riddled with his caustic takes on religion and politics, government and capitalism. That was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative community, so I’m sure a few spiky letters to the editor will arrive at the Indianapolis Star this week.
Yet, if he had really wanted to drive a stake through the heartland, he should have played one of my personal favorites, his theme “That’ll Do” from Babe: Pig in the City. While originally sung by Peter Gabriel, their voices are rather interchangeable at this point, so I think Newman delivering this subtle ode to kindness and to compassion and, well, to pigs would have been the perfect punctuation mark on his performance in factory farming Indiana (sad example here). We thought about shouting the title “That’ll Do” (like some rowdy concert-goers shouted “Free Bird” when I saw Tracy Chapman at the Wabash College Chapel years ago), but then we realized he might misunderstand, think we were telling him he was done for the evening, and then walk off stage.
Newman, ever the iconoclast, also worked in his shots at corporate giant Disney, letting us know in no uncertain terms, that while he has appreciated the opportunity, he hasn’t always been thrilled with the artistic limitations imposed. In a funnier bit, he commented how frustrating it is to score something such as a toy soldier falling into a drawer, adding that there is a good 20 minutes of Toy Story he’s never seen, because that particular section didn’t require any musical scoring. He then launched into a fine rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” one of the sharpest musical moments of the evening. Again, I wouldn’t have minded hearing a slightly more obscure tune from the Toy Story saga, the beautiful and heartbreaking “When She Loved Me” (originally sung by Sarah McLachlan and written by Newman).
I guess it is a sign that I am more of a fan than I knew, having left the show enjoying what I heard but wishing for more songs than time had allowed.
Feinstein and Sexton
As a final note, we realized after the show was over, that we had been seated in a box next to Michael Feinstein and his family and some potentially uber-wealthy donors. No doubt we probably would have been a bit better behaved had we known this – not putting our feet on the backs of chairs, nor taking flash photos, nor snapping our chewing gum. We are so classy. Regardless, after he finished schmoozing Daddy Warbucks and Co., Feinstein was kind and gracious enough to take a photo with us and to chat for a bit, though I suspect the cleaning crew was dispatched to our vacated box immediately.
Do take a moment to check out Feinstein’s Foundation and the great work they’re doing there, and if you feel like sending a donation to preserve our musical history and keep art alive, I’m sure it would be appreciated. If you find yourself in Indianapolis, definitely stop by for a visit or show. It’s worth it!