It’s difficult to overstate the loveliness of Paddington Bear, now Paddington Brown. The little bear, who first came to life in a children’s book in 1958, has starred in countless books and TV adaptations, but only arrived on the big screen three years ago. The film, Paddington, was a hit, meeting with critical acclaim and grossing $265.3 million worldwide. Not that such financial trifles have much place in the bear’s world. Despite being a blockbuster based on a preexisting franchise, Paddington is—for lack of a better way of putting it—uniquely pure.
If you can believe it, Paddington 2 is even better. It’s bigger, smarter, and funnier than its predecessor; it’s an absolute delight. The sort of pandering that children’s films are often prone to—the ear-toothbrush sequence in the first movie, for instance—has largely been replaced by jokes that are charming for charming’s sake, and the references, which range from Chaplin’s City Lights to Sondheim’s Follies, are lovely even if the specifics may fly over younger viewers’ heads. And if the Rube Goldberg contraptions that littered the first film seemed impressive, they pale in comparison to the set pieces that move Paddington 2 along.
The sequel, directed by Paul King, finds Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) safely ensconced in the Brown household. When he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit in a mix-up involving a birthday present for his aunt (voiced by Imelda Staunton), it’s off to the races. Practically speaking, there aren’t any particularly big twists in the story that follows, but everything is carried off with such sincerity that it all feels brand new.
One of the best examples of this is the film’s treatment of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, who return as Paddington’s adoptive parents. Hugh Bonneville got his chance to shine as an action hero in the first movie, and it’s Sally Hawkins who takes up that mantle here. Her performance is effervescent without ever seeming cloying, which is a neat metaphor for the film itself.
It helps that Paddington 2 is one of the most even-handed movies I’ve seen when it comes to depicting a multicultural community, mostly because it presents it without addressing it. Even stereotypical gender norms are thrown to the wind without any mockery or ill intent, as Bonneville is the one with the nightly facial routine and Hawkins the one who longs for adventure. It isn’t some strange thing to gawk at that people of all colors and social classes have come together to form a community (nor the intermittent interlude from calypso band D Lime): it’s just how life is. Basic kindness matters more than anything else.
That sense of equanimity extends to Paddington’s time in jail, which essentially turns into The Grand Budapest Hotel starring Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty. Though never explicitly addressed, the crimes of the incarcerated men seem to be of all sorts, as are the men themselves: there are men who come off as thugs, physically threatening Paddington, and then there are Phibs (Noah Taylor), who was once a restaurant critic, and Sir Geoffrey Wilcott (Cal McCrystal), who introduces himself to the Browns with, “I hope I can rely on your vote.”
Maybe this all sounds too easy, but there’s more to Paddington 2 than its candy-colored surface might suggest. The easiest hook to use to peel back the layers is probably the film’s villain, Phoenix Buchanan. Buchanan, played by Hugh Grant, is a once-famous actor, now relegated to doing dog food commercials but without the ego adjustment to match. Like Nicole Kidman, who played the villain in the first installment, Grant is given the most room to run wild, turning in a performance that’s perfect in how hammy and cartoonish it is. Like Jude Law in The Young Pope or Colin Farrell in his partnership with Yorgos Lanthimos, Grant seems to have finally settled into essentially weaponizing his charm instead of just his beauty to the point that this almost seems to be the role he was born to play.
The key to his character is that his villainy stems not from any inherent evil but from basic human insecurity and desperation. And the whole of Paddington 2 is built upon that kind of emotional honesty, without ever once resorting to being cruel or condescending to make a point. (For instance, it hardly seems coincidental that Buchanan’s end goal is to stage a one-man show beginning with “Rain on the Roof,” a number from Follies, itself a musical about growing out of one’s glory days and lost chances.) This sequel’s overall message may be a little broader, given the first film’s more explicit allusions toward the immigrant experience, but it’s still something of a panacea given the current climate.
Of course, there are a slew of other familiar faces as well—the Paddington franchise almost seems to be the next Harry Potter in that respect—including Peter Capaldi returning as a particularly sour and narrow-minded neighbor, and it’s telling that everyone is happy to be along for the ride. There’s not a moment in the entire film that feels like it’s treating the audience as stupid, no matter their age. Despite the fact that it’s a “children’s film,” it’ll take a miracle to knock Paddington 2 down from its perch as one of the best films this year.
It’s a miracle, too, that Paddington 2 was snapped up by Warner Brothers from its former home at The Weinstein Company. The film’s producers, HeyDay Films and StudioCanal, sought another distributor after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, stressing that TWC had nothing to do with the film’s production and that they felt that the film, given its intended audience and its message, ought not to be associated with such a scandal. And indeed, the film is looking toward a kinder future, and to jettison the kind of regressive thinking that made such cruelty possible.