Author Michael Bond’s supreme creation—the unfailingly polite, marmalade-munching English teddy from Darkest Peru—gets a gloriously whimsical big-screen debut that’s closer to the madcap spirit of the Muppets and the lovingly rendered style of a Wes Anderson film than to standard multiplex family fodder.

The storybook bear’s tale remains largely intact: After enduring hardship in Peru, our red-bowler-topped hero stows away to London, where he is taken in by the Browns (led by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins). He soon bumbles comically through the trappings of everyday human life, such as bathroom fixtures, rolls of Scotch tape, and hall banisters. But his biggest nemesis, and the biggest departure from the book series, is a ruthless museum taxidermist with a Louise Brooks ‘do (Nicole Kidman, having a ball), who would like nothing more than to stuff him to the gills—and not with fruit-preserve sandwiches.

Paddington is fast-paced yet unhurried, serving up surprisingly subtle ideas on melting-pot urban diversity—Paddington is a stranger in a strange land, after all—and rich visual tableaux, including a gorgeous recurring shot of the Brown home as a living dollhouse. For BBC fans, there may not be enough of a spotlight on its ace cast (current Doctor Who Time Lord Peter Capaldi gets only a handful of scenes as crusty neighbor Mr. Curry), but in honoring a beloved child-lit figure, writer-director Paul King has taken to heart the instructions hanging from Paddington’s neck: ”Please look after this bear. Thank you.” Mission accomplished. A-

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