Far outpacing its predecessor, the film stands as one of the finest works of its genre this generation, and an instant family classic.
Amid the usual sensory overload and simplistic humor that perennially defines children’s films, the first Paddington stood out for its elegance and cheerful wit. Its visual humor was certainly busy, arising from the various mishaps of its talking bear’s (Ben Whishaw) struggle to adapt to man’s world, but even as Paddington fended off the murderous attentions of a deranged museum taxidermist, he and the movie around him exuded a winsome charm endemic to nearly all great children’s cinema. Its sequel only doubles down on this tone, mostly lessening the occasionally dire stakes of the first movie even as it deepens the franchise’s overriding concerns for what it means to find one’s place in the world and the importance of the families we make.
Firmly settled with the Brown family in London, Paddington has become a fixture of his neighborhood, and an early montage of his jovial, helpful interactions with those around him neatly sketches how much of an impact he makes on others simply out of politeness and kindness. His indefatigable good nature extends to his hunt for the perfect present for his Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton) 100th birthday, which he finds in the form of a rare, prohibitively expensive pop-up book of London, something he can send to her to show her the city she never got to visit. The premise is wonderfully basic, leaving plenty of space free to fill with obstacles and convolutions, starting with Paddington working jobs to raise money and culminating in an unlikely competition for the book with has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). The plot spirals out in surprisingly convoluted ways, but the fundamental simplicity and sweetness of the motivation keeps the material grounded and easy to follow.
The comedy builds from the various escalations of intensity. Paddington’s attempts to find employment result in delightful sight gags like him sweeping a barber shop and grabbing an electric razor that vibrates so strongly that his entire body seizes up in a bouncing jitter, or a window-washing routine using his fur as a mop. There are also the wild machinations of Phoenix, which involve wearing a series of ludicrous disguises to add an extra element of absurdity to his chaotic actions involving an elaborate treasure hunt. And when Phoenix’s scheming gets Paddington framed and imprisoned for theft, the prison where he ends up is filmed not unlike the one in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel: a dour dollhouse literally brightened by its incongruous new inmate. The prison sequences are inspired, with shots of mess hall tables that stretch ominously to the gradual blossoming of good cheer and manners (and marmalade) brought on by Paddington. Later on, that dollhouse aesthetic is hammered home with a sequence in which the prison is rendered in miniature and opened up to show the various levels of its blocks and subterranean passages, a fitting contrast for an earlier scene which mingled Paddington’s expressive, 3D CGI with the flat paper animations of the pop-up book. There’s even a bit where Paddington gets caught in some gears in a blatant Modern Times nod, complete with a mustache of grease left smeared on his snout.
The broad sense of whimsy clearly influenced the actors, who cut loose in ways that they didn’t even in the first movie. Sally Hawkins is even battier as Brown family mum Mary, whose desire to exonerate Paddington drives her to looking for clues anywhere, even from a newsstand parrot squawking out catchphrases. Hugh Bonneville gets to play husband Henry with more range than the fussy, uptight patriarch of the first film; here, Henry’s risk-analyzing nervousness mingles with a goofier, more fun-loving sensibility. Guest turns from Brendan Gleeson as imposing but secretly insecure prisoner Knuckles and a returning Peter Capaldi as neighborhood watch warrior Mr. Curry round out the major supporting players. But it is Grant as Phoenix who completely steals the show. Relishing the part of the histrionic, egomaniacal actor, Grant does not say a single word, even if it’s just the letter “a,” without tripling the number of syllables it has. Phoenix does not speak, he orates, and his thespian hubris is so great that he regularly converses with himself via the old parts he played, swapping between accents so that he can squabble with “Scrooge” and “Hamlet” while staring at old wigs and costumes, if not his own reflection. Grant can barely contain his visible glee at throwing himself into such comic extremes, and he amplifies every second of Phoenix’s screentime.
The film’s final act heads into surprisingly somber directions, not merely in how far Phoenix will go to regain his status but in the interrogation of topics like the way prison divides families and leaves those inside to fear that their loved ones outside may forget about them. The action-packed climax radically ratchets up the stakes yet manages to flow logically from the film’s careful structure and layout. So many children’s films feel like a collection of scenes bolted together by the path of least resistance; the extent to which Paddington 2 pays off even throwaway gags to deepen its overall theme and progression is as impressive a feat as its deft comedy. Far outpacing its predecessor, the film stands as one of the finest works of its genre this generation, and an instant family classic.