There’s a moment in Paddington 2 in which Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a once-celebrated Shakespearean actor, is seen on television. Rather than performing a Hamlet soliloquy or Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech, he’s dressed as a spaniel and ingesting whatever brand of dog food he’s been forced to pedal. As the commercial draws to a close, warning flashes on the screen, reminding viewers this dog food should definitely not be eaten by humans, as all the while Buchanan continues to chew away with a miserable, forced smile affixed to his face.
If you just laughed, you’ll probably laugh all the way through Paddington 2, the rare children’s films that lives up to, if not improves upon, the original. It’s not often that a sequel to a children’s film actually works. For every Babe: Pig in the City or Toy Story 2 there exist seemingly interminable streams of Alvin and the Chipmunks, Despicable Me, and Ice Age sagas designed to distract your child for a time but potentially drive you to the brink of insanity. Paddington 2’s good-natured humor and general sweetness will break through every adult’s wall of cynicism, leaving only feelings of warmth and goodwill. Granted, those feelings will dissipate as soon as one logs onto Twitter or any internet article’s comment section, but they’re nice while they last.
Based upon the beloved children’s book series by the late Michael Bond, recounting the good-natured adventures of the titular bear who ventured from “deepest, darkest Peru” to London’s Paddington station and the home he finds with the Brown family, the world of Paddington Bear is one of colorful villains and kind-hearted individuals. Both 2014’s original film and this sequel feature humor as sweet and Paddington 2 begins with its small, furry lead’s sense of belonging well established. Existing somewhere between family pet and adopted son, Paddington has made a home for himself within the idyllic Windsor Gardens neighborhood. He is still treated with suspicion by Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi, the sole returning antagonist), the neighborhood’s local law enforcement, but everyone else is charmed by his willingness to see the good in everyone he encounters and accept them at face value.
Paddington, again voiced by Ben Whishaw, wishes to find the perfect birthday gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton). While visiting Mr. Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop, he finds a one-of-a-kind London pop-up book.
Believing it to be exactly what his Aunt would want, he sets out to earn enough money to purchase it. However, one night, he sees a thief breaking into a shop and stealing that very pop-up book. He heroically pursues it, with the help of a dog and a goose, but the thief escapes. With no evidence that the book-robbing fiend existed, Paddington is convicted of the crime and sentenced to prison.
Once Paddington is behind bars, the jail becomes a much brighter, friendlier place. Even Knuckles McGinty (the always welcome Brendan Gleeson), the most feared and hardened of criminals, is won over by Paddington’s marmalade sandwiches.
Eventually, a plethora of assorted pastries and cakes line the prison canteen until its pastel, confectionary world looks like a scene out of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Buchanan has actually stolen the pop-up book and adopts a series of disguises in order to follow the book’s clues that supposedly point to a vast treasure. As Buchanan commits a series of crimes in increasingly absurd disguises, the Browns are working to find the elusive thief.
What makes Paddington 2 so delightfully refreshing is its sense of humor, as sweet and bright as the marmalade Paddington loves so much. The film manages to sidestep the “adults-only” jokes that pollute so many DreamWorks’s properties but manages to appeal to both children and adults because the humor is genuinely clever and the jokes actually land. Many of the film’s best moments come from Hugh Grant. Seeing his hammy, vanity-inspired take on an actor, who insists upon one-man shows because sharing the stage with others diminishes his talent, reminds you that no one can play misguided arrogance and foppishness quite like he can.
Perhaps he was simply always meant to play the dastardly villain of children’s movies. He’s both a delight and a major improvement over Nicole Kidman’s villainous taxidermist from the previous film. It’s fitting for a film all about accepting others would feature a villain who refuses to see anyone share his spotlight.
It’s not just Hugh Grant, though. Everyone commits to Paddington’s glorious world. As the titular bear’s voice, Ben Whishaw provides the perfect blend of eternal optimism and everlasting stoicism. Hugh Bonneville’s Mr. Brown, the good-hearted risk analyst who has given Paddington a home, also serves as a source of perpetually befuddled humor, and Sally Hawkin’s radiance and warm, friendly smile ensures Mrs. Brown is a perpetual delight. The film could use more of Julie Walters’ Mrs. Bird, but that’s a minor complaint.
Beyond the film’s general good nature, its theme of acceptance, and its talented cast, Paddington 2 is a visual delight, mixing CGI and live action effortlessly. The candy-colored visuals and whimsical touches create a London in which everyone would count themselves lucky to live. In a visual highlight, director Paul King, who co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Farbany, takes the narrative’s pop-up book catalyst and uses it to craft a glorious early scene, in which Aunt Lucy and Paddington practically dance through a pop-up London, surrounded by smiling, paper citizens.
That is but one particularly dazzling scene in a film filled with them. In fact, practically every shot in Paddington 2 is stuffed to the brim with visual inventiveness and witticisms. It’s a world in which the simple act of washing an individual’s window literally lets the sun into his life. Subtle? Perhaps not. Joyously lovely? Without a doubt.
Walking out of Paddington 2, I was struck with a sense of astonishment at how easily the film could have gone wrong. How the film’s sweetness could seem saccharine and its sentimentality could feel mawkish. That Paddington 2 always stays on the right side of quirky and playfulness is to the credit of a screenplay that understands the titular character’s enduring appeal and a cast that knows exactly how to interact with the colorful world they inhabit. Instead of rolling my eyes, I wanted to hug every frame of this movie. It’s a lovely film, as warm and cuddly as the good-natured Bear at its center. It’s almost unBEARably adorable.
Don’t worry. The film’s jokes are much better than that one.
What about you? Have you seen Paddington 2 yet? If so, let’s talk about it in the comments. If not, I know it’s struggling at the box office right now, but please give this lovely, lovely film a chance. It’s well worth your time.