There was some trepidation before the release of the first Paddington movie in 2014 from English audiences and those who grew up with the familiar bear in the red hat and blue duffle coat, as the character was so iconic and ingrained in British culture that there were concerns the film wouldn’t do him justice. Personally I never read Michael Bond’s original books growing up, but adored Paul King’s warm and charming film so much that my worries were instead reserved for the release of the sequel, which I was convinced would be inferior. To my utter delight and surprise King (and Paddington) have returned with a film that is just as witty, pleasant, and visually inventive as its predecessor – if not more so due to a wider array of outlandish characters and larger set pieces.
The plot is simple, and largely an excuse for Paddington to wind up in a variety of Chaplin-esque comedic situations. Paddington wants to buy his Aunt Lucy a rare pop-up book of London for her birthday, so has to find a job to afford it. Unfortunately the book has also caught the attention of eccentric washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who steals the book and frames Paddington. Paddington winds up in jail, and the friendly Brown family have to attempt to clear his name while uncovering Buchanan’s plot. A fairly standard story for a summer holidays release, and inoffensive for the kids in the audience, but what makes Paddington 2 truly special is the amount of heart and genuine goodwill it brings to every element of itself. Paddington is constantly quoting his Aunt’s belief that if you look for the good in a person you’ll usually find it, and it’s this attitude that prevails throughout King and Simon Farnaby’s screenplay. Early scenes demonstrate how Paddington’s selflessness has improved the lives of everyone around his home in Windsor Gardens, both returning and new characters, and even the grouchiest figures can’t maintain their tough and cruel exteriors against the bear’s relentless optimism and determination. When much of recent news and pop culture purveys a cynical outlook on the world it’s like a breath of fresh air to have something so unashamedly nice, with the film encouraging innocence without feeling naïve or ironic.
After the success of the first Paddington movie it seems that British actors were clamouring over one another to be involved with the sequel as nearly every role is filled with a recognisable face, from Brendan Gleeson to Jessica Hynes with delightful cameos from Joanna Lumley and Richard Ayoade. Ultimately, though, it’s Hugh Grant’s film to steal. I’m unsure whether the part of Phoenix Buchanan was specially written for him or simply genius casting but it allows him to parody his own extensive career while demonstrating his considerable talents, and it helps that it looks like he’s having the most fun of his life doing so. Regularly holding conversations with himself as different characters in room decorated with his real-life headshots and wearing a new flamboyant costume in every scene, it’s a completely unabashed performance that he relishes in with all the energy of a classic vaudeville star. Rather than the other actors being overwhelmed by such a performance, he’s frequently balanced by Sally Hawkins’ somewhat floaty Mary Brown and Hugh Bonneville’s sternly exasperated Henry Brown. Throughout it all Ben Whitsaw’s calm and gentle vocal performances as the titular bear maintains the sweetness at the core of Paddington 2 no matter how crazy the story gets.
The term “children’s film” is often used dismissively, but Paul King blends the real and the imaginative to visually reflect that sense of wonder associated with the mind of a child. London is transformed into a living storybook, toy houses open up into real ones, and the soundtrack is often played on-screen by the returning street band from the first film. Despite being a big-budgeted summer release Paddington 2 feels as playful and intimate as a passion project, and is one of the most irresistibly charming films in a long while – whether for children or adults. Also the film opens with a flashback to Paddington as a cub and it was so cute I nearly burst into tears right then and there.
4 and a half stars.