“Where all your dreams come true”
In true children’s book fashion, Paddington’s (Ben Whishaw) continuing adventures in London alongside the Brown family (Hugh Bonneville‘s Henry, Sally Hawkins‘ Mary, Madeleine Harris‘ Judy, Samuel Joslin‘s Jonathan, and Julie Walters‘ Mrs. Bird) would of course stem from something as seemingly innocuous as procuring a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). The activity will prove more difficult than anticipated, a villain will be introduced, and a mystery uncovered through an enjoyable series of pratfalls and error. This is exactly the stuff that allowed books like Michael Bond‘s Paddington Bear (and peers The Berenstain Bears and Curious George) to earn their longevity—ubiquitous scenarios spiraling out of control for thematic dispersal. Director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby acknowledge the formula and utilize it with expert precision.
This is why Paddington 2 lives up to its predecessor and perhaps improves upon it without needing any time for exposition. That’s not saying the original was bogged down in presenting context, just that working from a place of unity (the Brown family including Paddington) rather than discord (the Brown family seeking to help Paddington without yet thinking they were the answer) allows for complex plotting. King doesn’t have to play both sides by going through the motions to pretend there’s a chance Henry refuses to embrace the bear’s charms when everyone knows there isn’t. He can instead hinge everything on that charm of his titular character. He can place Paddington into eccentric situations and let the love, compassion, and manners embodied by the Browns propel them through.
The question changes from “What can London do for Paddington?” to “What has Paddington done for London?” Because beyond helping the Browns evolve and mature (sub-plots involve youth-minded entrepreneurialism, mid-life crises, and adolescent insecurities), Paddington has galvanized their entire street. He’s infiltrated their lives in a way that puts a smile on their faces while also carefully prodding them towards brand new heights—besides Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), of course. So it means something when Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) wants to help him acquire that aforementioned gift (an antique pop-up book crafted by a distant relative of the traveling circus just come into town). It means something when Paddington is framed for stealing it and sent away to show exactly how crucially important he was to everyone’s life.
But his absence is the motivation to solve this central crime, not solely the focal point of the film for emotional resonance. The Browns instantaneously spark to action, blanketing the city with “Wanted” posters of Mary’s composite sketch of the real perpetrator as described by Paddington. The culprit—a washed up thespian turned humorously schizophrenic master of disguise named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant)—moves around each night in search of the hidden treasure he believes the pop-up book reveals. And Paddington’s fellow inmates (Brendan Gleeson‘s Knuckles, Noah Taylor‘s Phibs, Aaron Neil‘s Spoon, and Tom Davis‘ T-Bone, each an insecure softy beneath hardened exteriors) promise to help clear his name he if helps them escape. Here are three equally captivating threads on a collision course to expose the truth.
This last fact is where King and Farnaby outdo themselves. While Paddington 2 is a children’s film able to succeed with the bare minimum, they refuse to settle. Instead they craft elaborately surreal events throughout each thread to thrive as surface entertainment and necessary plot development. This is how they can incarcerate Paddington without ever going dark enough to alienate their young audience. Just throw some marmalade into the mix and this potentially violent scourge transforms into wannabe bakers and chefs ready to turn their cellblock into a home. The same goes for the Browns (there’s no need to force them to wallow in sorrow when their excursions in espionage can tickle us with laughter) and Buchanan (don’t blindly revile him when his adventure intrigues with added drama).
Whether or not Paddington is returned home becomes an effect as we follow the causes. Will he escape prison? Will the Browns discover who really stole the book? And will Buchanan’s wild goose chase provide wealth? We can assume the bear will find a happily ever after result without being bored in that certainty because we’re unsure how these three questions will be answered. Since they don’t all need to be successful for Paddington’s exoneration we can remain invested regardless and allow the insanity to progress as it may. We can welcome familiar faces from the franchise (Justin Edwards‘ policeman and Farnaby’s security guard) and from British television (Richard Ayoade and Joanna Lumley) while also anticipating King’s visual flourishes with a pop-up paper city and dollhouse prison cross-section.
Judy and Jonathan are still relatable in their caricatured teenage psychology, Walters’ take-no-prisoners maternal instincts excel, and Hawkins and Bonneville delight as the fearless and fearful adults respectively who keep everything in motion. Like Nicole Kidman before him, however, Grant shines brightest due to how much fun he’s having as the lead antagonist. His role has one requirement—cheese—and he complies whole-heartedly. King lets him run wild with memorable disguises, Shakespearean instability, and outlandish circumstances moving from train-top pursuits to a show-stopping, after-the-credits musical number. So there’s plenty for the whole family with every single act firing on multiple levels to add replay value no matter how old your child. King embraces the fantastical and unabashedly wields aesthetic anachronisms to ensure his film proves as timeless as its source.
Rating: PG | Runtime: 103 minutes | Release Date: November 10th, 2017 (UK)
Studio: StudioCanal / Warner Bros.
Director(s): Paul King
Writer(s): Paul King and Simon Farnaby / Michael Bond (Paddington Bear creator)