If only all of us could see the world the way Paddington sees London. The furry little bear in a raincoat looks around his adopted home and finds, in the smiling faces of his neighbors, nothing but joyful spirits and good intentions. There are no "no-go zones"; even a prison full of roughnecks can be a chance to help people in need. Forget the fact that he's a talking bear from Darkest Peru. It's Paddington's impenetrable spirit, his striving to do right by the world, to "always see the good in people," even those who wish him harm, that is the biggest wish-fulfillment of 2018.
There was every reason to expect the worst when Michael Bond's beloved children's-lit creation first made the leap to the big screen in 2014. After all, Paddington could have become just another bumbling, idiotic CGI creation getting into noisy mishaps, in the mode of Stuart Little or (shudder) Alvin and the Chipmunks. Yet director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) and co-writer Hamish McColl held steadfast to the spirit of common decency that anchored the books, and the result was a real charmer, a modern storybook fable that made the Ben Whishaw-voiced bear a hero to young and old. In Paddington 2, remarkably, King and new co-writer Simon Farnaby have done it again: a delightful family-friendly twofer the likes of which haven't been seen since Babe times.
This is no small thing. Ask any parent whose kids have gotten hooked on the never-ending stream of Minions and Smurfs how horrifying the prospect of a children's sequel can be, since the target audience will gobble it up no matter how lazy the construction is. Better yet, ask Pixar about Finding Dory and Monsters University. Not even the reigning champs of PG cinema could resist the temptation to simply rehash old characters and plotlines and coast by on good vibes. Paddington 2 avoids nearly all of these traps, spinning a lovely yarn with effects that dazzle, slapstick segments that shine and accomplished British thespians who give their all for their digitized co-star. It's so old-fashioned the climax takes place on a steam train. Bond, who died in 2016, couldn't have asked for a better send-off.
Having won over the hearts and minds of the Brown family in his status somewhere between "foster son" and "family dog," Paddington is now a town fixture. And so he starts off the new film the same way everyone else in the Western world starts their days: craving disposable income. When the antiques shop owner Mr. Gruber (a returning Jim Broadbent, delighted to be here) shows Paddington a rare pop-up book of London, he decides it will be the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) on the occasion of her 100th birthday, and has his heart set on purchasing it. The book occasions a marvelous sequence where Paddington envisions leading his aunt through the settings of its pages, little paper cut-out Londoners greeting them around every corner.
Alas, the real flesh-and-blood London soon rescinds its welcome. When a thief steals the book, Paddington is fingered (pawed) as the culprit, and that's all the spark needed for everyone to doubt the character of this marmalade-foraging foreigner. Peter Capaldi's odious neighborhood watchman, delighted to have cause for trumpeting his bigoted worldview, spits out Paddington's adopted surname —"Brown"— like the slur he wants it to be.
The real thief is played by Hugh Grant, whose ham-sandwich turn as a villainous washed-up actor is, tellingly, his best role in years. But the mix-up still sends Paddington to the joint, a disconcerting fate for those of us who'd assumed this curious but dim-witted bear was legally a minor. As the Brown family, led once more by the pairing of the always-smiling Sally Hawkins as the mom and the harrumphy Hugh Bonneville as the dad, works to clear the bear's name, he slowly acclimates himself to prison life, even after the guards solemnly inform him that there will be no bedtime stories.
Sending the talking bear to prison was a tonal disaster waiting to happen, and yet the film neatly two-steps through these scenes by having Paddington do what he does best: make friends. The movie's MVP is Brendan Gleeson, as the gruff yet soft-hearted prison chef with an all-timer name of Knuckles McGinty. "I don't do nothing for nobody for nothing," Knuckles sneers, until he lets his guard down once the new inmate teaches him how to make — what else? —marmalade. These scenes are a showcase for cinematographer Erik Wilson, who has clearly been studying his Wes Anderson, and once the commissary becomes a confectionery, all the inmates get to dip in and out of the frame so they're in on the joke. Sure, Anderson's influence may be old hat by now, but for kids who haven't yet enjoyed the pleasures of The Grand Budapest Hotel, this will be the perfect stepping stone.
The Brown family doesn't have as much to do this time around: Julie Walters' fiery grandmother, especially, needs far more screentime. But to make up for the oversight, this sequel improves on the first in the physical comedy department. Scenes of Paddington washing windows, attempting to manage a barbershop and riding a dog bareback (bearback?) have more invention and less pop-song hyperactivity than the last entry.
And the true vote of confidence here is that every setpiece, every extended gag, is driven not by short attention spans but by the underlying premise that Paddington wants to do good in the world. This bear is constantly striving to earn the approval of the humans in his life. One day, maybe we can all be worthy of his.