Movies can often be nostalgia-killers when it comes to beloved children’s properties, and there were bad omens for the fate of Paddington, the new movie based on Michael Bond’s sweet, marmalade-guzzling bear from Darkest Peru, who has starred in a series of books beginning with 1958’s A Bear Called Paddington. (See, for instance, #creepypaddington.) But Paddington has ended up a critical darling with a respectable box office haul to boot, the very British film coming in second place to the box office sensation American Sniper over the extended holiday weekend.
Fans can be forgiven for being wary of Paddington. Back in June a still from the film gave the adorable hero a menacing look and inspired that ominous hashtag. Then, in the shadow of that “Creepy Paddington” meme, the first trailer arrived, focused on Paddington’s bathroom mishaps. Then even more seemingly bad news came: Colin Firth would not be providing Paddington‘s voice any longer. (Ben Whishaw eventually took over.) Finally, it was pushed out of the holiday season into January, usually considered a dumping ground for movies. (With some exceptions.) January, however, turned out to be good for Paddington, at least business-wise.
In a weekend dominated by the whopping success of American Sniper, Paddington, already a hit overseas, accumulated approximately $25.2 million over four days. Erik Lomis, Weinstein’s theatrical distribution president, told EW Sunday that the bear’s international appeal was part of the strategy. “Paddington is a beloved character certainly in Europe and England and South America to an extent, but not as much here in North America, and we wanted to move it out of the Christmas fray,” he said. “I think that paid off. We were able to analyze everything that everybody did in other territories, where it was so successful overseas, and use it to our advantage here.” In fact, there was an early question of whether the film was just too British. Reviewing Paddington in November, when it opened in some territories, Guy Lodge wrote in Variety that its success in the U.K. was a given, but whether it would attract U.S. audiences was more questionable. Lodge wrote: “King’s film is thankfully reluctant to neutralize the national flavor of Bond’s distinctly English creation.”
It also helped that Paddington is so different from the other offerings this week, Rentrak’s Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian told EW. The movie stood out as an okay-for-kids alternative to Clint Eastwood’s war film or the poorly reviewed Kevin Hart R-rated comedy The Wedding Ringer.
But Paddington is also actually good, as reviews can attest. The movie is 98 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. EW‘s Jason Clark wrote that the film is “closer to the madcap spirit of the Muppets and the lovingly rendered style of a Wes Anderson film than to standard multiplex family fodder.” Some critics even mentioned the early bad press—including a more recent fracas with the British film ratings board—in their reviews, shocked to discover the movie’s pleasures. “It’s a relief to report that the final film is actually quite charming, thoughtful and as cuddly as a plush toy, albeit one with a few modern gizmos thrown in,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote when the film opened in the U.K. “The unstated but undeniable relevance of Paddington is a pleasant surprise, considering the movie’s rough start,” Alison Willmore wrote at BuzzFeed.
Perhaps no one should have been that surprised, despite the presence of #creepypaddington and the lack of Firth. In addition to featuring a cast of top notch British actors, including Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins, and Peter Capaldi, the film is directed by Paul King, whose resume isn’t full of blockbuster kiddie fare, but rather is best known as director of the BBC’s comedy The Mighty Boosh, which leans more bizarre than neutrally crowd-pleasing. King had some high minded ideas for Paddington. “We had lots of pretentious conversations about what we could do; we talked about Tarkovsky and Genet and Chaplin,” King told the New York Times of his meeting with producer David Heyman of Harry Potter fame.
Despite the slapstick silly of that early trailer, the film is much more artistic than one might expect. Take, for instance, a scene in an antiques shop featuring Jim Broadbent with a tea-delivering toy train. (Yes, that Wes Anderson comparison is applicable.) Also, note a reference to a famous, and appropriate in the case, Shakespearean stage direction.
And, for what it’s worth, the movie was better for the lack of Colin Firth. Discussing the decision to replace Firth, King told EW that “it slowly just became clear that Paddington does not have the voice of a very handsome older man, who has the most beautiful voice on the planet.” Whishaw is to Paddington what Scarlett Johansson was to Her, and gives the bear a curious innocence it’s hard to imagine the older, sterner British star giving. Star Bonneville explained to The Daily Beast, in a post that declares the film to be “legitimately excellent,” that Firth would have sounded “too mature for the bear in the movie,” adding: “It could’ve been a PR disaster. It could’ve been the end of the movie. All the cynics could’ve said, ‘Well we were right. And they’ve moved the date. And they’ve changed the bear.’ But actually after all those naysayers the proof of the pudding is in the eating and a lot of people are getting stuffed on it.” Well, stuffed on pudding or, perhaps more aptly, marmalade, Paddington’s favorite snack.