After leading a popular children’s book series (as well as several television adaptations of it) for more than 50 years, Paddington Bear has finally made it to the big screen. While the friendly bear with a red hat and a blue coat might not be too familiar to American audiences, he’s been beloved in his native Britain for all these decades. With Paddington, that popularity might finally gain some momentum here. Regardless of whether it does or doesn’t, this is still an eminently pleasant film. It’s one of the better family movies to come out in some time, in fact.

Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is discovered by the affluent Brown family at the train station in London for which he is named. He has nothing but his hat, a suitcase, and a tag that reads “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” After the destruction of his house and the death of his uncle in an earthquake, Paddington has traveled from “darkest Peru” to London in search of a better life. Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) is an extraordinarily cautious man and reluctant to take the young bear in, but his wife Mary (Sally Hawkins) insists on it. The Browns then spend the movie trying to help Paddington find a home, while the well-meaning but clumsy and culture-shocked bear keeps inadvertently getting into trouble.

There’s a distinct lack of cynicism about Paddington, which is mildly surprising, given that it’s the latest incarnation of a heavily merchandised literary character. Yet it doesn’t feel like a cash-in, and it rarely stoops to low means to entertain the way that so many other movies for kids do. The movie feels directed rather than stamped out from a corporate mold — it’s filled with marvelous stylistic flourishes that make it always interesting to watch. When Paddington writes a letter to his Aunt Lucy and describes the Brown family, a dollhouse sitting by him opens up and transforms into a miniature facsimile of the Brown house, each room occupied by a different family member going about their business as Paddington writes of them. It’s like Wes Anderson for the prepubescent set.

That sense of whimsy is constant, a gentle sensibility that’s an agreeable change of pace from the screech that is not just the norm for kiddie fare but a lot of adventure-minded films, period. Even when it goes into action mode, it aims more to thrill than to just be loud. And it’s all in the service of a tight script that pays off numerous setups quite well. Beneath its gags, Paddington is a story about the immigrant experience, and what it’s like to feel out of place in the world, and the importance of kindness to the “weird” people (or bears, in this case). Your kids will laugh while also learning how to empathize with foreigners. What more can you ask for? It shouldn’t feel this unusual that some real thought was put into a family film, but it does. It’s an unexpected but welcome cinematic surprise for early 2015.