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Monday, January 5, 2015

Holiday Delights: Big Hero 6 and Paddington

Just when you thought you'd seen all the Marvel movies to come out this year, here comes yet another one that's an absolute must-see - even if you probably din't realize it was a Marvel movie. You think that's surprising though, wait until you get a load of that Paddington Bear movie... 

Big Hero 6 is, despite the lack of Marvel branding, yet another Marvel Comics-based movie - or yet another really, really good Marvel Comics-based movie, to be exact. Playing out as something of a mix between The Incredibles (itself a thinly veiled Fantastic Four pastiche) and The Iron Giant, Big Hero 6 tells the story of a young genius inventor, Hiro Hamada, who, after tragedy strikes, teams up with a group of slightly older but like-minded young wizzkids and an inflatable medical-helper robot names Baymax to stop a menace that threatens the entire city of San Fransokyo (a beautifully imagined metropolis that melds together the styles and architectures of , you guessed it, Tokyo and San Francisco). 

It isn't, it has to be said, quite on the level of those two Brad Bird masterpieces, but Big Hero 6 is still a wonderful animated film for all ages that is bursting at the seams with big laughs, high octane superhero adventuring and a surprising amount of pathos and genuinely touching emotional beats. It works best when it concentrates on the relationship between Hiro and the just absurdly adorable and hilariously funny Baymax but it's pretty much a delight all the way through.

What really takes the film over the top though, is that while it works great as a piece of storytelling, it is, quite possibly, the most visually breathtaking animated film released to date. While special care has been given to giving each character their own very definite look - ranging from our day-glo, brightly-coloured human heroes to the perfect minimalism of Baymax to the trenchcoat-wearing, Kabuki-masked cool of the villain of the piece - it's the awesome vistas and intricately detailed architecture of San Fransokyo that make the film really stand out from the pack. While there's plenty of reasons to rewatch Big Hero 6, it's worth revisiting just to take in its wealth of peerless visuals and art design alone.

It's a very good film elevated to near-classic status by its aesthetics alone. And in age where we now take CG effects for granted, if not outright lash back against them for their dominance in modern cinema, that's no small feat. No Small feat at all.

And then there's Paddington. 

Now, I'm not sure how many non-British or non-British-descended people are familiar with the adventures of Paddington Bear but I distinctly remember reading (and perhaps even viewing?) his adventures when I was a kid. Still, we're not exactly talking Superman or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here: I knew going in that nostalgia was never going to influence my opinions of this frankly dubious looking CG/ live action updating of this beloved and very British character. Frankly, between the fact that Paddington was advertised as being "from the producers of Harry Potter" (ie. random blokes who financed that multi-bajillion dollar franchise) and the fact that most of these "updates" simply scream desperation, I didn't exactly have the highest of hopes for Paddington. Hell, it's a freaking Paddington Bear movie - how good could it possibly be?

The answer, as it turns out, is very, very, very good indeed. It's not just that Paddington way exceeded my expectations, it's that it is, by any measurements imaginable, a simply brilliant family film; an instant holiday classic that stands up to just about any competition you can throw at it. Had it came out just one week earlier, it would easily have been in my top 25 films of last year - and quite high up at that.

The reasons it works are multi-fold. It has a brilliant British cast, for a start, including such favourites as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Boneville and a wonderfully pathetic Peter Capaldi, and one Australian in the form of Nicole Kidman who is clearly having a whale of a time as the piece's sinister taxidermist-baddie. And then there's Ben Whishaw who is just beyond perfect as the voice of Paddington himself, who brings the character's unforgettable mix of naivety, goodness and intelligence to vivid life.

That Paddington is such a perfectly played and well drawn (both literally and figuratively: the CG effects are really, really good) character is key to the success of the film and that his human counterparts are almost as great means that whatever else goes wrong (and pretty much nothing does) it always had a really steady foundation on which to work.      

Of course, this foundation is crucial, as the plot itself is - on the surface at least - seems to be nothing special. Paddington basically a fish out of water story, as our titular hero comes to London from the wilds of Peru to make contact with the man who taught him and his family of bears how to talk English and how to properly appreciate lots and lots of marmalade but instead becomes entangled in the life of a family who, as it turns out, were desperately in need of a talking bear in their life. Think Hairy Poppins, basically.

If this all sounds mawkish and daft beyond belief, it's to the film's infinite credit that it's absolutely nothing of the sort. It's genuinely sweet when it could have been mawkish, witty where it could have been dumb and by paying full attention to the film's smallest of details it makes its old-hat plot feel incredibly fresh. Whether it's the almost-fairy-tale-like-but-not-quite feel of London or the fact that everyone seems perfectly happy to accept that there's a three-foot-tall talking bear walking around in a floppy hat and raincoat, the devil is most certainly in the details here.

Most importantly though - or, at least, most notably - is that all the great characters, clever details and technical excellence can't quite prepare you for just how funny Paddington is. Where 90% of mainstream Hollywood comedies now seem to rely on often fairly shoddy and woefully overdrawn improvization, Paddington leaves of all them in its furry dust by packing the film with dozens upon dozens of well crafted, perfectly directed and meticulously WRITTEN jokes. Aside for maybe Guardians of the Galaxy and 22 Jump Street (and that's a big maybe), I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard and so consistently at the cinema.  

I know what it looks like and you may have to bring your kids (or borrow someone else's - with the correct permissions of course!) if you're particularly insecure about going to a Paddington movie as an adult but please do see it - even if you've read my review, I pretty much guarantee you'll be surprised to find out how good it is.

So, both films earn the same ludicrously high score - but remember only one of them did so without the rating-boosting aid of incredible visuals and Japanese-American designs...

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