“Actors are some of the most despicable, devious people on the planet,” says the cantankerous housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) around the time that the dastardly villain of Paddington 2 is revealed. It’s about as close to a “for the adults in the room” line as the film gets, if only because no films right now manage to cast their respected thespians in a more unilaterally cuddly and adorable light as the live-action adaptations of the iconic, extremely British Paddington Bear books. The sequel, again directed by Paul King with just as much love and detail as the first, feels first and foremost like it must have been a blast to make for its cast; never are you going to see the likes of Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, and Hugh Grant having this much earnest fun. But as with the first film, Paddington 2 never feels like it’s speaking above the level of it intended primary audience, and thus the performances by the adult actors feel less like larks and more like tremendous acts of generosity.
There is a great, but perhaps too rare tradition of this. The primary examples that spring to mind are James Cromwell in Babe, and many of the actors who have passed through the Muppets film universe. Nicole Kidman brought a delightful, completely invested villainy to Paddington as a rogue taxidermist; filling her stiletto boots this time is Hugh Grant. As the aforementioned dastardly actor (whose career is suffering because he is too vain to work with other actors), Grant perhaps even one-ups Kidman’s campy bear hunter. But he is only the new seasoning on the warm, hearty stew of the sequel. I don’t know if I could have predicted a film about a CGI Peruvian bear who goes to jail as being the call to decency we needed at the start of 2018, but here we are.
The new Paddington follows the template of the first almost to the minute, but manages to inject even more fun, freewheeling energy into each beat. With the Peruvian bear officially welcomed as a permanent member of the Brown family, he now faces a new challenge: getting a job. Particularly, he needs to make enough money to purchase a rare antique pop-up book of London to send to his dear old Aunt Lucy, who never realized her dream of visiting the city, and is still back in Peru at the home for retired bears. In a wonderfully realized sequence, Paddington imagines his aunt arriving on a pop-up paper boat in the pages of the book itself, and him on the docks there to greet her. Ben Whishaw’s voice performance as our titular hero is as measured and full of good faith as before; if the film was indeed simply about a bear trying to buy a book, he could make that deeply affecting.
Alas, the book turns out to be more than it appears, a treasure map of sorts to a hidden fortune that local actor Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) also has his eye on. When Phoenix burgles the book from Mr. Gruber’s (Broadbent) antique shop, Paddington gets framed for the crime, and sent off to prison. It seems to be an alarmingly bleak turn of events, except for the fact, as stated by Bonneville’s surrogate father to the bear, that “Paddington looks for the good in all of us,” and a block of hardened criminals is no exception. It isn’t long before Paddington has transformed the prison into a utopia filled with marmalade sandwiches, where the guard reads bedtime stories for the inmates over the loudspeaker.
Meanwhile, Phoenix follows the clues of the pop-up book, each time donning a different disguise from his costume closet, in a series of riotous set pieces. And the Browns and everyone else on the #FreePaddington train do their best to clear their adopted ursine son’s name, resulting in, among other things, a delightfully straight-faced courtroom scene in which Grant’s preening reaches its glorious apex. The film gets progressively funnier and more delightful as it goes on; King layers plenty of good-natured comedy on top of each daring escape and chase scene, stretching probability and sometimes patience near the end, but each new hitch and escape feels like an act of invention.
Still, Paddington 2 outdoes its predecessor simply by expanding upon the idea of Paddington as a kind of stand-in for all immigrants, and emphasizing how valuable the bear has become to his human neighbors. While he’s in the clink, the picturesque block of Windsor Gardens is a little grumpier, a little more downtrodden, and they all rally around him in his time of need. The film’s final minutes, which brings it back down from its madcap heights to bear level once more, is a thing of disarming beauty. Children deserve more movies like Paddington 2, and honestly, so do adults.