Film Review: Paddington 2

A charmingly triumphant sequel to 2014’s successful 'Paddington.'
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What a delightful way to spend an hour and 45 minutes is watching Paddington 2. Precisely because it doesn’t play to the grownups with meta asides and pop-cultural winking (all right, there might be one or two instances of those), this children’s movie will appeal to anyone who has a heart for whimsy, no matter her age.

When our story opens, Paddington, the young bear who makes friends as easily as he inadvertently finds himself in trouble (there could be no better voice for him than the soft-spoken Ben Whishaw), is living in the bosom of the Brown family in London. Thanks to his polite manners and humanist belief in the existence of good in everyone he meets, he is the most popular creature in the neighborhood. His Aunt Lucy’s (the voice of Imelda Staunton) 100th birthday is fast approaching and Paddington wants to send her a special sort of present. It’s in a shop of antique curios run by a Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) that he finds a book with pop-up pictures of London. That’s it! Aunt Lucy has always wanted to visit London, but she has never had the chance. Unfortunately, Aunt Lucy’s perfect present is unusually expensive. In order to afford the book, Paddington works a number of odd jobs, and to such visually comic effect that if any older members of the audience are taken out of the story for a moment, it’s only to admire the handiwork of the film’s animators. Paddington’s stints at a barbershop and as a window cleaner who doesn’t quite understand how to balance his weight and that of a water bucket as he hoists himself and the object aloft delight with their sight gags. There’s lots of visual fun to be had, but these are some of the sweetest and the silliest, and are greatly aided by an enchanting score from Dario Marianelli (who won an Oscar for Atonement).

But the narrative really gets underway just before Paddington has reached his goal. There’s something special about that pop-up book indeed, so much so that someone is moved to steal it from Mr. Gruber’s. Paddington is blamed for the crime and is sent to prison, leaving it to the Brown family to uncover the mysterious thief.

The cast is spectacular. If some of us had overlooked the fact before, over the past year Sally Hawkins has proven she can do no wrong. Paddington 2 might not be the prestige vehicle of a Maudie or a critically acclaimed The Shape of Water, but Hawkins brings no less impish warmth to Mrs. Brown than she has to her other, grownup roles. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Brown knows how to play the stuffy patriarch, but here he is allowed to have some fun with the type, just as Hugh Grant, as a pompous actor of the the-a-tre whose star has fallen so low he has been reduced to acting in dog-food commercials, gets to dress up, speak in funny voices and generally act the stuck-up goof.

But if anyone is truly a match for the star power of the bear (and his wonderfully expressive eyes), it’s Brendan Gleeson as a fearsome prison cook named Knuckles McGinty (or “Mr. McGinty,” if you’re polite-as-pie Paddington). Gleeson grimaces and skulks about like a pirate who was raised in the back alleys of a Dickens novel, but he plays it all straight, without hamming or cheesing. He’s the mean hard nut Paddington must crack with his kindness, which—spoiler here—he does, but thankfully not too easily.

Which is why Paddington 2 is such a lovely good time. Its note of sweetness is nicely tuned, with hardly a false note of saccharinity. Of course, this is a children’s movie, so situations and types are broad, but when it comes to its earnestness, nothing seems overblown. There’s no air of reaching, perhaps because the filmmakers seem to sincerely like their characters. (The end credits include a dedication to the Paddington Bear children’s books’ author Michael Bond, who passed away in June.)

The film does have a shaky moment that threatens derailment when it goes in for an extended action sequence at the climax. “Action hero” isn’t a suit that fits the civil Paddington very well. Up to this point the movie has succeeded just fine without whiz-bang fireworks: That’s a different kind of movie entertainment, and not one this tale of light visual touches needs. Would that a resolution a trifle more in keeping with the protagonist had been staged—maybe something that featured the reappearance of a whimsical hot-air balloon made of prison uniforms.

Ultimately, however, the film’s message, that nice guys who remain polite finish first, is timeless and fitting. Its gentle exhortation to “be yourself” doesn’t imply, as some other contemporary messages of personal empowerment have done, that you act at the expense of, or with disregard for others. It isn’t always easy for Paddington to act like himself, but when at last he comes through, the conclusion to his story is so just-right, you may leave the theatre feeling as if the world has some order to it after all. This winter you can keep your Oscar fare: I’m with the bear.

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