The first movie based on Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear books was an absolute delight, and defying the usual laws of sequelitis, the second is equally charming. Once again voiced with delicious delicacy by Ben Whishaw, the furry little marmalade-loving critter gets into more scrapes this time around, but emerges from them with his gentleness and lovability intact.
After briefly recapping the cub’s earlier Peruvian life with Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) and Uncle Pastuzo (Michael Gambon), Paul King and Simon Farnaby’s script shifts to London, where Paddington is now happily ensconced with the Browns in Notting Hill. Insurance assessor Henry (Hugh Bonneville) is feeling his age, having just been passed up for promotion, and siblings Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) are going through teen problems, while mother Mary (Sally Hawkins) holds things together—along with elderly Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters)—while preparing to swim the Channel.
Meanwhile Paddington is faced with a mission of his own: finding a suitable gift for Lucy’s hundredth birthday. He discovers the perfect thing in the curio shop of Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent): a beautiful old pop-up book of London landmarks, which would give his aunt vicariously the experience of visiting the city she’s always dreamed of. But it’s expensive, and so the little fellow vows to find a proper job and earn the cash he needs.
Cue some delicious slapstick sequences, notably one showing Paddington engaged as an unlikely window-washer and another a stint as a barbershop assistant that leads to a rather bad cut for an irascible customer, Judge Biggleswade (Tom Conti). But during his off hours Paddington spies somebody robbing Gruber’s shop—specifically of the pop-up book. In the chase that follows, the police mistake Paddington for the thief, and he is promptly convicted and sent to the hoosegow, much to the joy of nasty Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), the only person in the neighborhood who dislikes him.
While the Browns work to exonerate him, behind bars Paddington—and his marmalade—eventually earn the friendship of all the other inmates, particularly grumpy cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), who encourages him to escape and work to prove his innocence.
Of course we’ve known all along the identity of the villain: Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a preening actor reduced to doing dog food commercials dressed up as a pooch. He recognizes the book as the key to a long-lost treasure, if one can only read the clues to be found at each of the landmarks depicted in it. With that loot he intends to revive his lost career.
One can rest assured, of course, that things will work out well for Paddington, the Browns and his friends (it closes with a scene as teary as the one in “Going My Way”), and that the dotty, dastardly Buchanan—whom the film follows as he completes his goofy itinerary of some of the city’s major tourist attractions—will get his just deserts. Along the way, though, it offers not merely comic sequences as intricately crafted as any devised for the classic Looney Tunes shorts, but scenes of extraordinary visual beauty, most notably one in which Paddington imagines the illustrations in the pop-up book come to life as a virtual tour of London for Aunt Lucy.
Of course, the film is also quintessentially British, and much of its humor depends on an appreciation of the eccentric that has always been a hallmark of English comedy. As both co-writer and director King has plugged seamlessly into that tradition, accessing both the deadpan understatement of the old Ealing movies and the sense of playful abandon that marked the childish naiveté of Mr. Bean.
The combination is delectable, and the cast throw themselves into the spirit of things perfectly. The voice work by Whishaw, Staunton and Gambon couldn’t be better, and Bonneville and Hawkins are, as in the first film, willing to do whatever is necessary—including looking rather ridiculous—to capture the proper mood of controlled lunacy. Among the long roster of superb character actors—Walters, Broadbent, Capaldi, Conti, Noah Taylor, Eileen Atkins—who go along with the farcical doings, Gleeson takes pride of place, using his patented gruffness to comic effect here.
But even more important is Grant, who follows up his superb turn in “Florence Foster Jenkins” with one that’s a flawless embodiment of thespian self-absorption. Nicole Kidman made a fine villainess in the first “Paddington,” but Grant is even better—lighter of touch and more adept with double-takes (and showing capability at song-and-dance as well, in a closing-credits sequence reminiscent of “The Producers” finale that you should be sure to stay around for).
Credit also must be given, of course, to the technical crew. This is a great-looking film, with a sumptuous production design by Gary Williamson, colorful costumes by Lindy Hemming (including some unusual prison garb), and glowing cinematography by Erik Wilson, not to mention the effects artists. Spiffy editing by Mark Everson and Jonathan Amos and an agreeable score by Dino Marianelli complete a top-of-the-line package.
Here’s hoping that like the proverbial cat, Paddington will have nine lives—in franchise terms, that is. With movies as beguiling as these two, we would welcome seven more of them.