How 'Paddington 2' Succeeds Where Others Have Failed

The sequel manages to incorporate CGI and live-action characters without also being annoying.
Photofest
From left: 'Garfield: The Movie,' 'Paddington 2,' 'Smurfs: The Lost Village'

There are few safe presumptions in Hollywood anymore, but one of them is that sequels rarely top their predecessors. As common as it is for movies to inspire sequels or franchises, there are only a select few that manage to equal what came before, if not improve upon their precursors. For every The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II or Toy Story 2, there are countless more examples of sequels that are big steps down from what came before. This weekend marks the release of a film as surprising and winning as its forebear, one of the rarities: Paddington 2.

Though it won't end up being as massive at the box office as a Star Wars or Pixar sequel, Paddington 2 is absolutely as good as the 2015 original, if not a little bit more charming and hilarious. Where the first film, directed by Paul King (who also helmed and co-wrote the sequel), established how Paddington Bear (voiced earnestly by Ben Whishaw) arrived in London from Darkest Peru and was adopted by the kind, if slightly daffy Brown family, the sequel dives headlong into Paddington’s newest adventure, best summed up as “escaping from prison.” Yes, in keeping with the notion that sequels raise the stakes for their leads, this time around, Paddington is framed for stealing an antique pop-up book that he intended on paying for legally to give to his aunt for her 100th birthday. Once in prison, he has to try and clear his name, all while the Browns try to figure out who really stole the book.

What made the first Paddington so special was its ability to accurately adapt the basic origins of Paddington Bear in a modern context, without seeming obnoxious, condescending or phony. Paddington isn’t the first modern adaptation of children’s characters to incorporate CGI and live-action characters; franchises like Garfield, The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks as well as the upcoming Peter Rabbit all do so, but the former three all received fairly negative reviews and were largely annoying, even if the source material had fans. Perhaps because Paddington and the sequel feel very British, the two films are bright spots among the rough offerings in the family-film market of the last few years that aren’t from Disney or Pixar.

Paddington 2, like Paddington, doesn’t condescend to its audience, and King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby (who voices an easily distracted security guard in both films) once again balance a more adult sense of humor with kid-friendly gags. Many of the set pieces — from an early sequence in which Paddington, working at a local barbershop, is unable to cut an old man’s hair without causing destructive chaos, to a farcical bit where the Browns hide in the book thief’s house — derive their inspiration from silent comedies. (One gag, where Paddington is pushed through a series of gears and winds up with a sooty mustache, emphasizes its Charlie Chaplinesque inspiration.) Those jokes are coupled with visual gags and puns that will only work for the eagle-eyed adult viewers, while kids thrill to the sight of Paddington, say, winning over a group of surly prisoners with a bevy of marmalade sandwiches.

The other element that remains present throughout Paddington 2 is its shamelessly emotional heart. The final shot is a tearjerker, a warm moment to which the entire film is building even amidst its goofy humor. Before that, the emotional core of Paddington 2 is Paddington fearing that his relationship to the Brown family is permanently damaged now that he’s been sent to prison; in reality, they’re trying to clear his name on the outside even as they appear to be ignoring their ursine charge. Yet King and Farnaby find a way to blend humor into even the most earnest moments, as when Mr. Brown delivers an impassioned speech about Paddington’s good heart to the always grouchy Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), then fails to start his car to begin a thrilling rescue of his adoptive son. Eventually, Brown’s other neighbors help him get on his way, but the gag of the car’s engine failing to turn over is the right way to undercut any potential treacle.

With few exceptions, it can be very easy for critics and audiences to forget the earliest releases of a given year. Paddington 2, like its predecessor, is being released in the U.S. in January, in part to capitalize on how light this month is on new family films. While it’s absolutely a worthy film to bring the whole family to, Paddington 2 is just generally a massive delight, a remarkable and hilarious example of how good family filmmaking can be. The 2015 film Paddington could have easily been a case of lightning in a bottle, where the filmmakers got all the right ingredients into place just the once; instead, Paddington 2 is a step above the original, enough so that you almost hope the franchise keeps pressing forward, just like its hero.