By: Steve Pulaski
Paddington Bear is like the Curious George for advanced pupils. His rambunctious silliness carries more weight and consequences than George's, and his antics are easier to capture in a live-action film than if George were to make more-than-a-monkey's-leap into the real-world. Three years ago, the adorable and fun Paddington was released to critical acclaim along with an American audience, far less familiar with the character than the Brits, that embraced the scrappy character's sensibilities.
Now we have Paddington 2, a stronger sequel with greater stakes than its predecessor. Furthermore, the sequel still maintains the tricky balance of exemplifying the boundless possibilities of its titular character while making the humans sympathetic rather than accessories irrelevant outside of being the punchline of a joke like the film that came before it. Just as great to look at in a visual sense as its predecessor, now with more favorable quirks added to the narrative, Paddington 2 zips along as it carries itself past 95 minutes, never feeling a beat too long nor a gag too thin. It's remarkably satisfying children's entertainment that should come with a guarantee to impress more than the adult-fare to be released this month.
The story retains focus on Paddington Bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw), who has comfortably settled in with the Brown family made up of mother and father Henry and Mary (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins) at the helm. Paddington is met with unconditional support in Windsor Gardens, where he resides, but has run into a bit of a predicament trying to give his Aunt Lucy a special gift for her 100th birthday. He desperately wants to give her a pop-up book of London, exclusively available at a local antique shop, but has little funds to pay for the expensive and unique storybook. He works a series of oddjobs, but when the book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a hack actor who has become a staple of bad dog-food commercials, Paddington is arrested and subsequently thrown in jail for 10 years.
Being the positive ray of sunshine he is, Paddington takes an opportunity to befriend his fellow prisoners, including a short-tempered chef known as "Nuckles" (Brendan Gleeson), whose initial hostile encounter turns uplifting when Paddington inadvertently introduces him to his favorite food - marmalade sandwiches. Nuckles allows Paddington to work in the kitchen with him to nourish the inmates with something a bit tastier, meanwhile Henry and Mary maintain their beliefs that Paddington is in fact innocent. Phoenix, on the other hand, has mastered many disguises thanks to his side-gig as a performer, and plans to use hidden clues in the book to crack its mysterious code.
Not a dull moment exists in Paddington 2, but the prison sequences with the cheerful bear trying to uphold his positive attitude are among the most giddy. There's a sequence shortly after Paddington and Nuckles spend the night whipping up a batch of marmalade sandwiches for breakfast that has director Paul King and cinematographer Erik Wilson (reprising their duties from the previous film) employing artful camera angles to show the kitchen juxtaposed with the cafeteria as we watch it fill with satisfied inmates, decorations, and an incredible assortment of food. It's a lovely visual feast that brings out the most prominent details that have been integral to the success of this franchise. As I stated in my review of its predecessor, Paddington 2 also feels like Wes Anderson spent several days on set but still gave King the luxury of assuming the director's chair. The result is a myriad of beautiful illustrations that show that we tend to forget the potential of live-action when it's treated like an animated film.
The difference-maker in Paddington not present in something like Yogi Bear or likely the upcomingPeter Rabbit is the writing. Cowriters King and Simon Farnaby do not sell the material short by making Paddington a pathetically oafish, farting, slap-happy bear. They are careful to emphasize his well-meaning nature, and his commitment to being proper and polite (he holds the words of his Aunt Lucy near and dear to him: "if you're kind and polite the world will be right"). When they do subject the audience to the more manic side of our main character, they are careful to fill the extended sequences with Rube Goldberg-esque mischief, where one thing leads to another in a matter of moments and elements gradually build rather than instantly explode. Erik Wilson knows how to make Paddington convincingly fly down a staircase in a bathtub and get tangled up in the chord of an electric razor when he's trying to cut someone's hair. On top of that, King and Farnaby know how and when to infuse the instance in the script so it's not just a comic detour from the plot.
Most of the cast, like the crew, reprise their roles and give audience the impression that everyone's back because they want to be back in such a whimsical world. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins continue to play straight with a genial side to compliment their furry supporting actor. Brendan Gleeson makes for more-than-your-average-grump in a secondary performance that's amiable without being too cynical, a balance the veteran actor has been known to strike in the past. Then there's Hugh Grant, treading closely to the realm of being a parody of his charmer self that works in the film's favor, and makes this his first compelling showcase in a long time. Take note of a cameo appearance by Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) as well, who reminds people that his far-too-sporadic roles are greatly hurting us so much so that a four-second appearance feels like a revelation.
On a final note, I still cannot for the life of me figure out why StudioCanal chose to release this film in America after Christmas rather than before Thanksgiving or Christmas, giving parents and children ample amount of time to have something to compliment the holiday season. The same happened in 2015, when Paddington was released in January of that year, as well. You can tell I was truly smitten with the film because I emerged with that being one of the only complaints in my mind. Paddington 2 is a lovely film that capitalizes on the eminently likable traits of its titular character and the world he embodies, and it's nothing short of a kiss to fans that the cast and crew not only remain largely unchanged but still supremely dedicated.