Paddington (2014) was an unexpected miracle. Here was a live-action family film with a CGI animated critter that not only wasn’t bottom-of-the-barrel dreck, but transcended genre and audience as a genuinely heartwarming and magical piece of entertainment. It was funny, charming, and even political, telling a smart parable about the immigrant experience. It's a true joy.
A high bar to reach, then, but happily, Paddington 2 is a delightful sequel that dares to go to some dark places - and in typical Paddington fashion, brighten them right up.
The story revolves around a lovably low-stakes goal for Paddington: getting his (bear) aunt a present for her hundredth birthday. Upon seeing a particularly nice “popping book” about London in his friend Mr. Gruber’s antique shop, he sets his sights on earning the thousand pounds necessary to buy it, via his own window-cleaning business. But in an unfortunate turn of events, the book gets stolen by has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), set on finding the treasure the book secretly points to - and Paddington gets framed for it and sent to prison.
If you're not hip to why the Paddington films are such must-sees, consider their director, Paul King, whose TV series The Mighty Boosh is a surreal, hilarious, wildly imaginative cult favourite. That comic creativity is even stronger in Paddington 2 than in the first, with King frequently dropping animated diversions, comic asides, and whimsical flights of fancy into the storytelling. One particularly memorable highlight sees Paddington showing Aunt Lucy around a pop-up papercraft version of London. But even outside the cutaway fantasy sequences, King keeps the story moving with sparkle and pop, devising elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque physical comedy setpieces and deploying live-action performances with an animated sensibility. As someone who’s worked frequently in children’s entertainment, I’m simply in awe of what King has achieved here.
Paddington 2 expands upon the first film’s compassionate politics, turning its eye principally toward - improbably - the criminal justice system. Thrown into prison despite a near-total lack of evidence, Paddington finds himself in a new world populated by very frightening fellows. Chief among them: gruel chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), a towering nightmare with a penchant for violence and a low tolerance for criticism. But so infectious is Paddington’s innate goodness that Knuckles - and the entire prison population, from inmates up to the warden - quickly changes his tune, turning the penitentiary into a place of creativity and collaboration. There’s a very real message in here about - of all things - the importance of a rehabilitative prison system over a punitive one, going hand in paw with Paddington’s insistence on finding the good in anyone. Paddington solves the prison system. It’s truly remarkable.
Though Paddington spends much of the film supposedly surrounded by society’s bad guys, the only actual bad guy here is played by Hugh Grant. Late-model Hugh Grant is proving the most interesting Hugh Grant (turning in great work in Cloud Atlas and the animated The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists), and Grant deserves an Oscar, a Grammy, a Pulitzer, and possibly a Nobel Peace Prize for his performance in Paddington 2. He chews scenery not just as the narcissistic and over-the-top Buchanan, but as a variety of theatrical alter egos in escalatingly silly disguises. Grant is wildly entertaining in the role, turning his every word into a glorious, almost musical performance, making Buchanan every bit as loveable to watch as he would be detestable to know.
Though outshone by the 2000-watt floodlight that is Hugh Grant, human costars Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville deliver strong, upstanding work as Paddington’s adopted parents/friends Henry and Mary Brown, with Julie Walters getting a heap of laughs as the older, grimmer Mrs Bird. Gleeson’s work as Knuckles would be an A-grade children’s bad-guy performance to match Grant’s if he didn’t so quickly transform into an equally A-grade reluctant softie. And on the voice-acting side, Ben Whishaw once again provides boundless heart, voicing Paddington without a hint of cynicism.
The rest of the cast is filled out with beloved luminaries of the large and small screens - Peter Capaldi, Jessica Hynes, Noah Taylor, Joanna Lumley, Richard Ayoade, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, the film’s cowriter Simon Farnaby, and Goodness Gracious Me’s Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, to name but a few. The support cast is hearteningly multicultural, too, continuing the series’ firm assertion that people from anywhere are worth caring about. That the folks in Paddington’s neighbourhood are both from a range of backgrounds and all upstanding citizens may seem like a minor detail, but in a world (and especially a Britain) increasingly being told to fear brown people, it’s an important one.
Paddington 2, like its predecessor, takes place in the most aspirational kind of fantasy world. It’s a world where people just accept tree existence of a talking bear, yes, but more importantly, it’s a world where where kindness and politeness reign supreme; a world where a taste of marmalade can change a career criminal into a cupcake chef; where everyone holds a basic modicum of respect for everyone else; where the highest stakes imaginable are whether or not you'll be able to give your aunt an appropriate birthday present. A world, frankly, that’s better than ours. We don't deserve Paddington, and we’re lucky to have him here to guide us. But then, Paddington would never care about “deserving.”
Paddington 2 is up for three statues at next month’s BAFTA Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Grant, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Outstanding British Film. It’s certainly the most British film of the year, beating even Darkest Hour’s Churchillian pomp - British in the way Britain would like to see itself portrayed, anyway, as a paragon of civility (despite racist Peter Capaldi reminding you of what Britain’s really like). It’s a call for a return to that civility, and for an extension of it to all of society - and today, that feels almost revolutionary.
Perhaps the worst thing I can say about Paddington 2 is that the inevitable post-film reemergence into the real world feels like a cruel slap in the face. Like a dream from which you don’t want to wake, Paddington 2 is a sweet respite from life in 2018. Don’t sleep on it.