In the opening scene of Paddington 2, the titular bear is rescued by his Aunt Lucy, who remarks that he is "rather small and rather sneezy...but he'll go far." The same could be said of the Paddington film series -- perhaps minus the sneezing. An improvement on the surprisingly successful 2014 adaption of Michael Bond's book series, Paddington 2 is refreshing, family-friendly fare amidst the dramas of Oscar season. It is pure-hearted and whimsical, with a simple but stirring message of love and tolerance.
After almost getting stuffed by Nicole Kidman's twisted taxidermist in the first installment, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has settled into a happy life in London with the Brown family. With his kind, thoughtful nature and appreciation for everyone in neighborhood, he has become the heart of Windsor Gardens. But things take a turn for the worse when Paddington attempts to save up money for a birthday gift for his aunt, who is retired back in Peru. The vintage pop-up book he's eyeing just so happens to be a secret treasure map, and it's eventually stolen by wacky, washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Buchanan successfully frames Paddington for the theft, and the petite Peruvian bear is sent to prison.
While this uncomfortably real miscarriage of justice could throw off the whole tone of the movie, prison in the Paddington universe is full of criminals who are only using tough-guy bravado to mask hurt and insecurity. Paddington's wide-eyed naiveté and insistence on treating everyone with respect allows him to befriend alpha prisoner Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Soon, he has brought out the best in the convicts and festooned the jail with pastel hues, bunting, and flower boxes.
One of the Paddington films' chief strengths is their sense of world-building, which could give Wes Anderson a run for his money. Paddington's London is diverse and bursting with color. The set pieces here are richly layered, with more care and attention to detail than are usually given to a children's movie. And the animation of Paddington himself is once again remarkably effective, especially in his emotive eyes.
The comedy in Paddington 2 is unabashedly punny and physically spot-on; it's silly without ever feeling cheap or condescending to children's intelligence. Some of the film's comedy setups are simple but handled so cleverly. Take, for example, a moment during the epilogue montage: It's revealed that, after Paddington teaches him how to make marmalade, Knuckles opens his own tea room called (wait for it) Knuckle's Sandwiches. The patience and restraint to wait until the film's end to make that single joke is seen throughout in a series of crafty callbacks.
Paddington 2's supporting cast are a who's who of recognizable British actors. Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi are joined in the sequel by Noah Taylor, Richard Ayoade, and Dame Eileen Atkins (among many others). While Bonneville and Hawkins are great foils for each other as the parents of the Brown clan, the true human standout of the whole film is Grant. Indeed, the part of Buchanan was written with him in mind, and he recently received a BAFTA nomination for the role.
Because Phoenix Buchanan is less murderous and creepy than Kidman's character, Grant is able to be more of a cockamamy, cartoonish villain -- which he utterly nails. In fact, though Buchanan does ultimately try to do away with Paddington in his quest for the treasure, one could argue that the film's real villains are the justice system and everyday prejudice. Busybody neighbor Mr. Curry (Capaldi) is the one who gets a moral lecture, not Buchanan. When Curry, who never liked having a bear in the neighborhood, tries to stop the Browns' rescue mission for their ursine friend, Mr. Brown chastises him. He calls him out for immediately judging Paddington, who might be different, but who always finds the good in people.
Paddington 2 might not be on the level of a Disney or Pixar classic, but it's a charming ray of sunshine that delivers a timeless yet timely message: Being kind -- whether to foreigners, to criminals, or to bears -- is the right thing to do and makes a community richer for it.