Given how much fun the first Paddington film was, you would think production company Heyday Films, Studiocanal and the assorted other backers of Paddington 2 might have splashed out a bit and given the newest installment in this successful British-French financed mini-franchise a silly-cute, punning subtitle. Paddington 2: Grin and Bear It perhaps? Or the slightly smuttier sounding Paddington Bares All ? Maybe, as a nod to both the protagonist’s favorite foodstuff and a gift to any aging disco bunnies who might be in attendance, Paddington 2: Lady Marmalade? Alas, the best one could say of the title Paddington 2, aside from the fact that it comes pre-search-engine-optimized, is that it doesn’t raise — or dash — expectations in any way. It just suggests the viewer will be in for more of the same.
Happily, that means this latest chapter in the adventures of the West London-dwelling Peruvian bear (once again voiced impeccably by Ben Whishaw) is every bit as perfectly tuned, cruelty-free funny and kind-hearted as its predecessor, maybe even more so. Reassembling most of the original key talents — both in front of and behind the camera, and above and below the line — this builds immaculately on the world first established in Paddington, like a sensitively designed extension to a well-loved landmark. Peripheral characters are developed by gentle increments without losing sight of who is the real star. There are even more cameos and supporting turns from major stars (Hugh Grant and Brendan Gleeson representing the standouts) and familiar but less easily nameable faces hamming it up on just the right side of silly, like you might find in one of the better Muppet movies. The slapstick, sight gags and chase sequences are kicked up a notch but without any loss in lightness of touch. There’s even a reprise of the camp humor that earned the first film a much-mocked PG rating in the U.K., because at one point a male character dressed as a woman. If you thought that was funny, the very same gag comes around again halfway through, this time featuring the latest film’s co-screenwriter Simon Farnaby, just as Paddington featured its co-scribe Hamish McColl in virtually the same role. Even better, those who sit through the end credits will be rewarded with a lavish musical number, replete with tap-dancing chorus boys in pink-striped boleros mincing it up with abandon.
But best of all, Paddington 2 presents a righteous moral message that’s particularly appropriate for these troubled times. Just as the original pic made an impassioned case for accepting and welcoming immigrants (sadly a lesson not learned, judging by Brexit), the follow-up makes a plea for kindness, civility and looking for the good in people at a time when rudeness, insults and prejudice based on appearances are on the rise everywhere we look. Paddington 2 won’t save the world, sadly, but its existence makes everything just that tiny bit better and more, well, bearable.
With its coincidences, mysteries and mini-puzzles, returning director Paul King and his co-screenwriter Farnaby have devised an ingenious plot, a delightfully retro mechanism that’s as precise as one of the many gizmos featured in the story, from the gears and snarls of rope and electrical cable that form so many accidental traps for the little bear hero to the complex mechanisms that operate steam trains, which feature in the snappy climax.
The basic idea is that Paddington’s newest neighbor in fictional street Windsor Crescent is Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a vain, aging thespian who’s been reduced to fronting dog food commercials. Learning of the discovery of a one-off 19th century pop-up book (described charmingly as a “popping book” by Jim Broadbent’s immigrant antique dealer) that Paddington wants to buy and send to his elderly Aunt Lucy in Peru, Buchanan steals the tome, knowing that it contains clues to find a hidden treasure that could fund his years-in-the-planning one-man show. During the theft, Paddington tries unsuccessfully to capture the culprit, unaware that it’s really Buchanan.
Unfortunately, Paddington is the one who ends up in jail, an imposing Victorian pile, where no bedtime stories are read, work is hard and all fear the prison’s fierce head chef Knuckles McGinty (Gleeson). But Paddington, who insists on looking for the good in everyone like Lucy told him he should, manages to crack McGinty’s hard heart via the magic that is marmalade. Together, they make the prison a literally brighter, more cheery place. Meanwhile, beyond those walls in deepest West London, the Browns, Paddington’s adopted family (returning players Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin), struggle to find a way to clear Paddington’s name.
At one point, the Scots housekeeper Mrs. Bird intones solemnly that actors are “the evilest people in the world,” a sentiment clearly not shared by the filmmakers here who have created such a splendid, daintily lit showcase for the assembled ensemble. Although it’s a rather crowded cast, just about everyone gets a moment to shine, drop a plum line or pull a funny face — indeed, during one prison scene around 15 actors are crowded into the frame for just this purpose. It’s possible that King and Co may have been huffing too many Wes Anderson movies given the use of dollhouse-set staging and amped-up line deliveries, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s especially treasurable is that the film feels very true to its own tao of Paddington, with all that so very British clipped diction and gentle tweaking of class sensibilities, the jewel-like colors of the sets and costumes, and the glorious flurries of old-school animation that blend seamlessly with the ultra-high resolution work on Paddington himself (referenced against Whishaw’s own expressions) and the other digital characters. (Kudos are due to animation director Pablo Grillo and the other digital effects teams especially.)
Like an intricate scaled diorama, this is a work of art built up from thousands of tiny, thoughtful details that no one could catch on just one viewing. Given the way kids like to watch things at home on an endless loop, Paddington 2 will reward weary parents with frequent chances to spot gags they may have missed the first, second or twentieth time around. I’ve only seen the film once, but I don’t think I could ever get tired of watching the way Grant pauses in mid-stride, realizes he’s forgotten a crucial item and cries prissily, “Ah! Cravat!” Surely many a bathroom around the world was flooded by mischievous younger viewers after they’d seen Paddington, and it’s likely there may be window-cleaning mishaps traceable to this sequel, but what’s a broken bone or an insurance claim matter when so much mirth and joy is on offer?
Production companies: A Studiocanal presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment, with the participation of Canal+. Cine+, Amazon Prime Instant Video of an Heyday Films production
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, Hugh Grant, Brandan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Simon Farnaby, Tom Conti, Noah Taylor
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Paul King, Simon Farnaby, based on the books by Michael Bond
Producer: David Heyman
Executive producers: Rosie Alison, Jeffrey Clifford, Alexandra Ferguson Derbyshire, Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer
Director of photography: Erik WIlson
Production designer: Gary Williamson
Costume designer: Lindy Hemming
Editor: Mark Everson, Jonathan Amos
Music: Dario Marianelli
Casting: Nina Gold