Director: Paul King
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant
Paul King’s first Paddington film had little to prove, aside from confounding fears of what might have been done to Michael Bond’s beloved bear. One only has to look at the trailer for the forthcoming Peter Rabbit movie to see how a staple of British childhood can be so thoroughly and hatefully bastardised. The modern reboot, in this particular sphere of entertainment, is conspicuous for it’s misses rather than it’s hits (if Peter Rabbit turns out to be good I’ll eat a bath towel). But confound expectations King most certainly did, and Paddington was a heart-warming little winner for the winter season of 2015.
Which places this entry in the opposing position. With so much good will earned two years ago, what now for this dream team? Can lightning strike twice?
Turns out it most certainly can, and it can strike brighter the second time too. With the assistance of Simon Farnaby on scripting duties, it’s a pleasure to report that Paddington 2 is the superior sequel you may have heard tell of already, and though there isn’t an ounce of yuletide cheer to be found in it’s smartly woven story, this is just about the perfect family film to eschew in the Christmas period.
Everyone’s favourite CG bear (voiced by the superbly cast Ben Wishaw) has now firmly established himself as a resident of London with the Brown family. Film two finds the birthday of distant Aunt Lucy approaching, and young Paddington is eager to gift her a special treasure that epitomises what life is like in the English capital. He spies a splendid pop-up book among the trinkets at the local curiosity shop, but it’s a one-of-a-kind and rather expensive. What’s more he’s not the only one with his eye on this particular item.
Enter Hugh Grant, giving what may prove to be the most entertaining performance of his career as washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan; once a leading man, now reduced to dog food commercials and doomed attempts to resurrect his one-man show. Buchanan, with his arsenal of characters, is a master of disguise, and when he snatches the book, Paddington gives chase, unaware of whom he is following. Buchanan disappears and Paddington takes the fall, ending up in prison with little recourse to return home. Things are looking bleak for the bear with a penchant for marmalade sandwiches.
So while the Brown family do their best to clear his name, he adjusts to life with an altogether more loathsome ‘family’ (at least, to begin with). As with the hearts of all but the most hardened of audience members, the convicts of the prison all fall for the charms of earnest Paddington. Before long the canteen looks more like a patisserie and there are flower boxes adorning the cell blocks. The cherry on top is a typically whimsical sequence in which Paddington accidentally dyes all the inmates’ jumpsuits pastel pink. The Paddington effect is complete.
The CG bear is as impressive to look at as before, standing up to consistent onscreen scruitiny. His human counterparts more than measure up, even as the cast bloats with a who’s-who of respected UK comedic talent. Everyone from Richard Aoyade through Tom Davis and Jessica Hynes is here to pitch in, even if its only for a line of dialogue or two. In the prison, Brendan Gleeson plays ringleader to the colourful cast of criminals as curmudgeonly cook Knuckles McGinty while the familiar roster of faces that make up the Brown family and their neighbours are all back faithfully in attendance. So resplendant and continually forthcoming is the cast that King’s rebooted bear already feels like an established British institution; everyone’s on hand just for the pride of being able to say that they have been. The mood is jovial, celebratory even.
Thankfully this adds up to far more than a collection of indulgent cameos in a bunch of threaded skits. While everyone who appears on screen feels worthy of a warm welcome, every single one of these characters, no matter how minor, are in service of a water-tight script that skillfully weaves all of them into one impressively realised story, where even the smallest of details seeded early on is rewarded with a payoff come the swift-moving final act. The delightful trick is that none of this feels particularly like seeding at the time. Each of these moments works as a gag or as useful character detailing (see Jonathan Brown’s new interest in steam engines as an example). One of the great joys of this movie is just how clever it has managed to be without you even realising. When the domino effect begins, it makes for a supremely satisfying experience which plays out with a lightness that makes it all feel so deceptively effortless.
Paddington 2 celebrates London’s cultural heritage and acts as a playful bit of tourism for a number of the city’s great sights, but it also carries a wonderful message about inclusivity at a time when such reminders couldn’t feel more valuable. Paddington’s trial feels somewhat reminiscent of the battle in public opinion for and against kneejerk xenophobia (an attitude still epitomised by Peter Capaldi’s disapproving neighbour). However – and this is to the film’s credit – it’s not layered on too thick. It’s there to find and appreciate, and it adds a richness and thoughtfulness to the experience, but it never gets in the way of the film’s primary mandate, which is to charm.
In terms of form and creativity, it most welcomingly recalls Wes Anderson at his most playful; the attention to detail in framing and colour palettes bringing to mind elements of Fantastic Mr Fox or The Grand Budapest Hotel at their best. This is emblematic of the level of smarts Paul King is working with here. On this evidence I’m sure plenty of us would be perfectly happy to see the Paddington films run and run, but Paddington 2 suggests that whatever King turns his hand to next will be worth getting excited about for the pure technical craft he’s displaying at this stage.