Paul King’s delightful, charming followup to the first Paddington is a lovely ode to family, friendship, ingenuity – and, of course, marmalade.
In a world where Minions and Lightning McQueen dominate the attention of most children in America, it’s lamentable that Paddington isn’t more of a thing here. To Brits, Paddington Bear – the central figure of Michael Bond’s children’s books in the 1950s and beyond – is as much a children’s icon as Doctor Who: an adorably polite, anthropomorphic bear cub who loves marmalade as much as he does getting into trouble. Despite all odds, 2014’s Paddington turned out to be a uniquely charming and effervescent adaptation of the character, updating him for a more modern, diverse London without skipping a beat. Now its sequel, Paddington 2, has arrived, and by golly, if it’s not just as warm-hearted and downright fun to watch as its predecessor.
Just like in the first Paddington, the film’s stakes are simple: now fully entrenched as a beloved member of the Brown family (including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters et al.), young Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wishes to get a 100th birthday present for his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton). He finds the perfect gift in a pop-up book in the gift shop of Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), and quickly sets about getting a job to pay for it. Unfortunately, the book is soon stolen by unscrupulous West End thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), and poor Paddington is framed for it. Thrown in jail for the offense, Paddington must find a way to escape and clear his name, with the help of the Browns and a particularly burly prisoner named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson).
Of course, the plot is effectively just set dressing for co-writer/director Paul King, returning from the first Paddington, to ply his trade, sending the audience on one quirky, whimsical set piece after another. King’s got visual imagination to spare, paying homage to everyone from Wes Anderson to silent comedies like Modern Times and The General. Added to that are moments of eye-popping visual invention, like Paddington imagining taking Aunt Lucy through London through the pop-up book, the two wandering through a gorgeous 2-D mockup of London’s greatest landmarks. This is smart, sophisticated, visually satisfying filmmaking wrapped up in a light-hearted children’s farce.
What’s most remarkable about both Paddington films is the sheer mastery of Paddington as a fully realized CGI character. Voiced with tremendous sensitivity and comic timing by Whishaw, Paddington occupies the physical spaces of this heightened London with incredible alacrity, seamlessly interacting with his surroundings and supporting cast to the point where he feels a fully realized individual. Of course, the film is so breezy and full of life that it doesn’t really stop so you can see the seams, but that’s another point in the film’s favor. Paddington, for all his hard stares and single-minded love of marmalade, feels real, which makes him that much easier to love.
The human cast keeps up gamely with Whishaw’s whimsy, which makes sense for a film series that seems dedicated to keeping the faculty and emeritus of Hogwarts gainfully employed. The film is chock full of the best and brightest English character actors, almost to the point where it threatens to become overstuffed. However, King offers even the most minor players their own subtle arcs – heck, the film even finds room for the one racist crank who doesn’t like Paddington (Peter Capaldi, fresh off the TARDIS), and his neighbors get small, but satisfying arcs of their own. The Browns are especially fun to watch as they toil to prove Paddington’s innocence, each with their own little subplots and journeys that take up little screentime, but have great impact.
At the center of this embarrassment of riches is Hugh Grant, who’s having the time of his life as Buchanan, a mediocre thespian who uses his roster of over-the-top costumes and characters to pull off his many elaborate plans. Gamely poking fun at his own stammering, effete persona, it’s oodles of fun to watch Grant work; now having aged past the role of dashing romantic lead, he gets to take the mick out of his own stuffy theatricality and bumbling joie de vivre. Grant’s love of panto is clear from the get-go, the actor having as much fun dressing up as knights and nuns and tramps as Phoenix himself. Even if the rest of the film didn’t work (and it very much does), see it for him alone.
Amid the antics, Paddington 2 still manages to be a sweet, moving tale about what families are willing to do for one another. In small ways, it’s a soft continuation of the first film’s sly immigration subtext, with a nice lesson about judging the worth of one’s character by how they treat the least among us – a message that surely resonated in the post-Brexit world of this film’s release. Paddington 2 is largely content to keep its stakes small and character-driven (Paddington is worried his time in prison will make the Browns forget him, for instance), but its larger emotional beats will hit you like a jar of marmalade to the gut. I defy anyone to get through the film’s final moments without at least a little tear in their eye.
Not just as a kid’s film, but a work of cinema, Paddington 2 is a resounding success. It’s light, breezy and endlessly visually inventive, with a wonderful cast and message to boot. Between Paddington and the Minions, I’ll take that adorable bear any day of the week.
Paddington 2 opens in American theaters on Friday, January 12.