As it enters the annals of great cinematic sequels, ‘Paddington 2’ might strike a few as a rather unexpected compatriot to the likes of ‘The Godfather Part II’, ‘The Dark Knight’, ‘Aliens’ or ‘Before Sunset’ - but make no mistake, that cute little bear is exactly where he belongs.
Whimsically traipsing onto screens with this year’s most delightful, most ecstatically enjoyable, most preposterously joyous cinematic experience, ‘Paddington 2’ might just be the perfect balm to 2017’s non-stop horror-show. Foraging through a divided, post-Brexit Britain for kindness and generosity, the film delivers in spades, espousing the importance of community, diversity and togetherness all under the guise of a Chaplin-esque slapstick romp about a marmalade-guzzling bear who just wants to buy his aunt a present. Seriously, that star rating is not a joke – this film is a genuine marvel.
Three years on from his first big-screen outing, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw, ‘Spectre’, ‘Cloud Atlas’) is on the hunt for a job. After finding the perfect gift to send to his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton, ‘Pride’, ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’) in the shape of an expensive antique pop-up book, he attempts to raise the money needed by washing windows and calamitously cutting hair. Of course, the Brown family are still around, headed amiably by the warmth and wit of Sally Hawkins (‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, ‘Godzilla’) and Hugh Bonneville (‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Viceroy’s House’), with whom Paddington is happily ensconced in a neighbourhood that is thriving thanks to his affable presence. But, an elaborate and intricate plot kicks into gear after the pop-up book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan (a show-stopping, scene-stealing Hugh Grant), and following a lengthy chase on dog-back (yes, you read that correctly), Paddington is framed, convicted and locked away in prison. Y’know, as so often occurs in your average family film.
Writer/director Paul King, best known for helming the surreal series ‘The Mighty Boosh’, brings a truly beautiful sincerity to proceedings, never undercutting the defiantly naff tone with sarcasm or snark, and never feeling the need to apologise to the audience for making a film that is exactly what it wants to be. With co-writer Simon Farnaby, King has crafted a storytelling feat, as the film’s screenplay may just be the most tightly plotted and impressively structured piece of writing I’ve ever encountered in a family film. Where in the first film the comic set pieces were equally impressive, if a tad tangential to the actual plot, here everything is cosily interconnected. Every stray gag finds a payoff, every bit of buffoonery is necessary, and every stray reference to Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Wes Anderson brings a vibrant flavour of invention and charm.
The cast, naturally, are terrific, with Hawkins’ cannily compassionate and wonderfully goofy work a particular standout (and invaluably necessary to the film’s emotional through line), not to mention Brendan Gleeson’s hilarious hardened criminal, or Julie Walters’ enjoyably ridiculous Scottish brogue. But really, if you’ve seen the first film, then the question you’re asking right now is undoubtedly a simple one: how does Hugh Grant stack up against the deliciously camp Nicole Kidman and her scenery-chomping power-bob of a performance as the first film’s villain? The answer is spectacularly well; Grant’s self-lampooning work as the nefarious, idiotic, egotistical thespian responsible for Paddington’s imprisonment is the kind of comedic tour de force that hasn’t been witnessed this year since Tiffany Haddish reimagined the humble grapefruit in ‘Girls Trip’. He primps, he preens, he has conversations with himself as Hamlet, Macbeth and Scrooge, and he commits crimes while dressed as a nun – not to mention the crazy-eyed commitment he brings to the Busby Berkley-style musical number that we never knew we all wanted from the ‘Love Actually’ star. Honestly, what else must he do for you people before he gets his Oscar nomination?
An openhearted ode to acceptance and kindness, at a time where those qualities seem to be sorely undervalued.
However, throughout all of this absurdity, what makes it all come together is the film’s heart, an element that is ever-present yet never cloying or false. The sense of genial whimsy that permeates the film has a mild undercurrent of sadness, as Paddington’s separation from his aunt and ensuing desperation to show her his love and appreciation is the spine of the whole endeavour. His status as a migrant with multiple homes and families goes from being implicit in its insinuations to expressly political, as Peter Capaldi’s anti-immigration, fear-mongering neighbourhood watchman strikes an all too timely chord, making his eventual comeuppance all the more satisfying for its rousing call-to-arms.
The film is an openhearted ode to acceptance and kindness, at a time where those qualities seem to be sorely undervalued. At multiple points as the film sped towards its note-perfect final image, the grass of the Moonlight Cinema (where I saw the film this past weekend) was apparently wreaking havoc with my non-existent allergies. That must be it, because the idea that I was moved to tears by a film about an adorable talking bear is patently absurd.
Then again, maybe that’s the exact kind of absurdity we all need right now.