By Preston Wilder
Consider the many tightropes Paddington 2 has to walk. It has to please kids (of course) but also, like its much-liked predecessor from 2014, it wants to be a film that adults can enjoy unironically. It needs to appeal to a global audience but must also be as pointedly British as possible, given the iconic status of its titular bear – but then again, it also must express two different Britains, the old one of manners and self-deprecation (and Paddington Bear, who came into the world in 1958) and the new multicultural, egalitarian one. And of course it has to be charming, and exciting, and hopefully funny.
The film pulls it off with panache, if perhaps a touch too much slickness. Kids will love the Mr. Bean-ish slapstick and knockabout action – and will also identify with Paddington who’s small, naive and apt to blurt out embarrassing truths, just like them – while adults will, at the very least, appreciate details like the bear being jailed for “grievous barberly harm” (he was working as a barber’s assistant at the time). The global audience is in the bag – the first Paddington made $250 million worldwide, which this sequel will surely match – but the sly sense of humour is as unmistakably British as the lashings of orange marmalade. Then again, this is also the ‘new’ Britain: the Brown family’s neighbours are an ethnically-diverse bunch, while gender roles within the family are in line with the new orthodoxy: the women are resourceful – Mrs. Brown is planning to swim the Channel, Judy runs her own newspaper – while the men are confused, whether it’s Mr. Brown struggling with midlife crisis or young Jonathan deciding to don wigga stylings and call himself ‘J-Dog’.
Overall, however, the film is old-fashioned (‘J-Dog’ reverts to Jonathan and admits his uncool love of steam trains in the final act), taking its cue from its impeccably courteous bear. “It’s very nice, but…” says Paddington politely when faced with an obviously unsuitable 100th-birthday gift for his Aunt Lucy, and doesn’t forget his manners even in prison (where he’s doing a 10-year stint), tipping his cap to the other prisoners and balking at the thought of escape because Aunt Lucy wouldn’t like it. The old girl also kick-starts the plot, based around a pop-up book of London (a perfect 100th-birthday gift) which turns out to contain hidden treasure and gets stolen by sneaky thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Phoenix’s flaw as an actor, incidentally, is that he refuses to work with other people – a sure sign of villainy in a film that’s so much about community and friendship.
The jokes have an old-timey air, as if stuck in the 1930s. There are window cleaners and Italian barbers. There are no mobile phones, and no internet. One gag, when our ursine hero introduces his prison friends and the frame fills up with rogues, one by one, has the same comic trigger as the old vaudeville skit where an infinite number of passengers emerge from a small car. Later, there’s a reference to Chaplin’s Modern Times. But director Paul King is ambitious too, the film taking off in Wes Anderson-esque flights of fancy that are well beyond the call of duty for a kids’ movie. Paddington browses the pop-up book and its pages transform into an animated fantasy of Aunt Lucy visiting London, surrounded by pop-up figures. The bear weeps in his jail cell and tree fronds emerge from below, as if watered by his tears, turning the cell into a jungle then back into a cell. Paddington 2 is even more confident than its predecessor, and most of its gambits pay off.
Speaking of pay-offs, there is one small caveat. This is a film where the (splendid) action climax carefully ties up all the various strands which have been set up throughout the movie: Jonathan’s love of steam trains, Mrs. Brown’s swimming prowess, Mr. Brown’s old nickname of ‘Bullseye’ – all play a part in the plotting. There’s a bit too much slickness here; the film is so polished it forgets to breathe. It’s a touch too Pixar, unlike its homespun hero.
Yet Paddington 2 delights more consistently than any other (ostensible) kidpic in ages. Grant is marvellous, never overdoing the pantomime villainy, seething with actorly vanity as he shares his evil plans with a roomful of mannequins done up as Hamlet, Macbeth, etc. Brendan Gleeson is Knuckles, the hardened jailbird with a singularly funny way of saying ‘marmalade’ (he breaks it up into syllables, as you do with exotic-sounding foodie words). Ben Whishaw voices Paddington with a nice mix of earnestness and enthusiasm, even as he trashes the barbershop, gets his paw stuck in a flower-pot, or accidentally paints all the prison uniforms pink in a laundry snafu. The bear is jaunty, charming and surprisingly adventurous. So is this movie.
DIRECTED BY Paul King
STARRING Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, the voice of Ben Whishaw
UK/US 2017 103 mins