The word that primarily suggests itself in respect to Paddington, roughly muscling out all other possibilities, is "charming". A word which could certainly be employed with a certain level of condescension, sure, but not really in this case. For it is an earned charm, in Paddington; the screenplay by director Paul King, from a story he and Hamish McColl adapted from Michael Bond's series of children's books, reeks with lighthearted affection for its characters, its settings, and its gentle depiction of a colorful, warmhearted England that never was. Even in it hardest-edged details - a crisply sardonic sense of humor with a healthy level of family-friendly misery, and an unremittingly cruel villain - the film never moves very far into darkness. Unpleasant things happen, yes, and they are played for laughs; but the only reason those laughs work, in this form, is because we're never persuaded that the unpleasantness is actually going to stick, or that anything genuinely bad might ever really happen to the characters.

The film takes its first cues from Pixar's Up, setting its stage with an old newsreel of a British explorer, Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie), leading the first-ever expedition to Darkest Peru (the best example I can give of where the film's sense of humor lies is to point out the unblinking way that no character ever, ever refers to the country as just "Peru", anywhere in the film). Here he finds an unknown species of hyper-intelligent bear, able to form human speech and use tools, and he's so impressed that he leaves them totally unmolested, along with an invitation to find him in London if they ever wish to cross the Atlantic. Many years later, those same bears, Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) and Pastuzo (Michael Gambon) are raising their orphaned nephew (Ben Whishaw), enjoying peace, tranquility, and an endless supply of homemade marmalade. After a terrible storm destroys their home, the young bear finds it necessary to make his way in the world, hopping a boat to England, where he encounter the Brown family, who name him "Paddington" after the station where he's found. Two very basic plots play out after this: Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), a risk analyst, is horrified at the thought of having a bear in the house, but Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) is too kind and caring to throw Paddington out, and the bear's gentle, bumbling ways eventually bring a new kind of life to the stilted Brown household, with children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters), quickly coming over to Mrs. Brown's side, while her husband behaves obstinately British. That whole thing, the one that's been done several dozen times.

The other plot centers on deranged museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) learning of Paddington and setting her sights on taking the bear down to be the prize of her career, with the help of the crusty, unpleasant Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the Browns' neighbor. Which in the abstract isn't terribly fresh either, though the taxidermy angle is appealingly morbid.

What makes Paddington lovely, then, surely isn't its creativity, unpredictability, or its insight into human behavior. It's simply that this ancient, well-worn form is done with such a light touch, enlivened by the absolutely terrific cast - Jim Broadbent is somewhere in there, too - assembled by producer David Heyman in a fine impression of his decade-long work making sure that every actor born in the British Isles found work somewhere in the Harry Potter octology. The role of a stuffy, overly-protective dad doesn't strain Bonneville any more than playing a warm-hearted soul with a steel spine exerts Hawkins, or the wise, tart-tongued housekeeper finds Walters rummaging around in the deepest recesses of her bag of acting tricks. But then, Paddington isn't an acting showcase: it's a sweet, low-impact script that needs a lot of rich but non-fussy performances to keep things steady and free from too much syrup on the one side, or insincerity on the other. And that's exactly what everybody provides, from the enthusiastically amazed Whishaw on down (all apologies to Colin Firth, but it's an obvious good that he ended up dropping out of the role).

The only exception is Kidman, whose performance actually does stand out as a bit of a virtuoso turn; it's a basic hammy bad guy performance, but it offers one of the rare chances for that actor to have any real apparent fun, biting into her part and gnawing on it, while the cinematography and costumes and hairstyling all pitch in to make her look as porcelain an bleached-out and harsh as possible. It's especially gratifying to see Kidman well-used as the merciless villain in a literary adaptation for children, seven years after The Golden Compass so frustratingly refused to capitalise on her visual presence, and what she's up to here makes her one of the finest kids' movie villains of recent years.

That's one of the obvious hooks the film has for an adult viewer (assuming that "it has a gentle, forgiving, and amiable soul" isn't a hook, which sadly, I imagine to be the case); another is that the film is rather snugly made and handsome to look at. Particularly the production design by Gary Williamson, which has the richly stuffed texture of a Wes Anderson film, only scaled back to a more cozily domestic sphere (the Brown house is imagined as a literal doll house at times, and the intricate detailing of every room plays that up well). One location calls to mind the elaborate, dazzling interiors of the Harry Potter films without feeling out of place or breaking things; the rest of the movie presents a comfortable and clean London, recalling the obviously set-bound Mary Poppins both in its stagey artifice and its appropriate softness.

Paddington's unending niceness is its best and defining characteristic, though it's not without some meat on its bones: without arguing so hard that it knocks things out of balance, it serves as a durable parable about how England is strengthened by diversity and immigration (which doesn't quite extend to offering nonwhite faces actual parts to play, but it's hard to imagine which role would specifically benefit from such a choice). And there's also that wry, snappish sense of humor to pull things back from being so soft and cushy that the whole thing is insubstantial. The whole package is simple and not very showy (the CGI Paddington is hardly a cutting-edge piece of effects work and animation, though it gets the job done), but the whole thing is satisfying enough that if it turned out to hang around as a minor classic of contemporary children's filmmaking, I'd not be bothered by that in the slightest.