If Hollywood is looking for a pop-culture role model in 2018, it could do worse than Paddington Bear, the adorable CGI version of the classic British children’s character. He’s voiced by Ben Whishaw, hails from “darkest Peru,” wears a pair of spectacles, is fond of orange-marmalade sandwiches, and, as his adoptive father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) puts it, “He looks for the good in all of us and he finds it.” The good can be hard to spot these days, but in Paddington 2, our furry friend does his best to bring it out anyway.
Paddington, a diminutive cartoon bear created by Michael Bond in 1958, has found a new life on the big screen in this ongoing series of films written and directed by Paul King. The first Paddington, released in the U.S. in 2015, was a surprisingly timely tale of a stuffy British family learning to welcome into their home a foreign refugee who happens to be a two-foot-tall bear. Paddington was originally inspired by the stories of children evacuated from British cities to the countryside in World War II, but in a Britain grappling with Brexit, he felt relevant in an entirely new way.
In Paddington 2, the allegorical thrust is milder, but this is still a tale about the importance of community and, as Henry put it, Paddington’s gift for seeing past a person’s surface. It’s a lovely children’s film that neither condescends to a younger audience, nor makes cheap, glib attempts to reel in an older one. King leans on his strengths—strong characterization and grand visual storytelling—to win the viewer over, and it’s hard to resist.
King, who came up in the British comedy world (he directed almost every episode of the wonderful TV show The Mighty Boosh), has such an attention to detail when it comes to production design: Every scene pops with color, every set is meticulously constructed. The London of Paddington 2 is frozen in a nostalgic moment just a step removed from reality—modern, but overflowing with whimsy. Paddington lives in a Notting Hill neighborhood filled with friendly neighbors (and one grumpy busybody played by Peter Capaldi) that feels the right amount of fanciful.
In the first film, Paddington had to get settled in with his adoptive family, including Henry, his more bohemian wife Mary (Sally Hawkins), their kids Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and Mary’s gruff relative Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). In Paddington 2, the stakes are a little lower; Paddington is instead focused on buying a present for his elderly aunt in Peru who’s turning 100. He’s got his eyes on an antique pop-up book about London’s most famous architecture, and as he opens it, the tome springs up around him, conjuring an animated representation of the city he’s come to love. It’s a perfect example of how evocative King’s visual storytelling can be in these movies, and how he can turn such a simple goal (buying a gift) into the catalyst for the whole plot.
Paddington gets some odd jobs to try and afford the pop-up book, but he quickly gets sucked into a larger criminal scheme. The volume is a key to a long-lost treasure buried somewhere in the city, and a greedy actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) is hunting for it. Phoenix is a preening prima donna whose career has hit the skids; in his pursuit of the book, he frames Paddington for its theft, and the bear gets locked away in jail.
As Phoenix, Grant is giving a bizarrely meta performance, playing an actor so consumed by his own fading fame that he converses with himself, using the voices of his most famous roles. It’s mostly an excuse for Grant to dress up in silly costumes and mug for the camera, all of which he’s ideally suited for. But Phoenix’s villainy is a secondary concern for Paddington 2, serving mostly as an excuse to throw the bear in the slammer and set up the film’s most charming set-pieces.
Brendan Gleeson is the real secret weapon in Paddington 2’s Swiss Army knife of character actors, playing an irascible prison chef named Knuckles who bonds with Paddington over their shared love of marmalade sandwiches. In this movie, even the oppressive atmosphere of jail becomes an environment where Paddington can work his magic, finding the good in his fellow inmates and convincing Knuckles to take pride in his cooking for the first time.
This is a film of such open-hearted joy and grace, which feels rare in an industry that often embraces cynicism and sarcasm, including in its children’s stories. Paddington 2 is gorgeous to look at, smartly written, and gleefully funny, boasting a fierce ensemble of estimable British thespians. For those looking specifically for excellent family entertainment, it’s a must-see; but even other viewers will find this movie well worth their time.