A friend who works with children — and has therefore seen the first Paddington movie many times — noted when I mentioned I’d be reviewing the sequel that there are far worse kids’ movies out there. From that perspective, Paddington 2 is a safe bet for mid-January family programming, easily as strong as the original. It’s just as visually inventive, its performances are equally laudable, and despite its requisite saccharine and credulity-straining moments, it’s relatively innocuous as far as pandering to its target demographic is concerned. It’s not perfect, but it also didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out — which is really about all I can ask of family-friendly films at this point.
But all this was to be expected. Barring a dramatic about-face, a sequel to the lightly likable Paddington was unlikely to be terrible. What was more noteworthy from my critical perspective was just how oddly derivative this film is — director and co-writer Paul King lifts liberally from sources as diverse as North by Northwest and The Grand Budapest Hotel to Home Alone 2, of all things. The influence of Wes Anderson, in particular, is strongly intimated, with King aping everything from Anderson’s symmetrical compositions and proscenium staging to the pink prison uniforms from Budapest. It’s the sort of thing that stuck out to me like a sore thumb but would be totally lost on Paddington’s intended audience.
Yes, you read that correctly — the lovable anthropomorphic bear from darkest Peru (Ben Whishaw) — does some hard time in this one. In typical Paddington fashion, this results from a comedy of errors in which our hero is wrongfully accused of stealing a pop-up book he’s been working to buy for his beloved Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). The real culprit is Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a narcissistic has-been actor who has discovered that the book is actually a treasure map that would have done Dan Brown proud and presumably is the thwarted thespian’s ticket out of working in dog food commercials. This leads Paddington’s adoptive family (Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville) on a manhunt to identify the thief while the bear himself is left to navigate prison life with the help of begrudging ally “Nuckle’s” McGinty (Brendan Gleeson).
As with the first Paddington, the live-action bit players are every inch as transfixing as the immaculately polished visual effects. Gleeson becomes the unlikely heart of the film with a performance that is surprisingly nuanced given the role, while Grant gleefully hams it up at the opposite end of the spectrum. While I have to say it was a disconcerting transition coming off The Shape of Water ( a very different role), I had forgotten how good Sally Hawkins is as Mrs. Brown. Returning players such as Jim Broadbent and Peter Capaldi benefit from the competent support of a background cast including the likes of Noah Taylor and Richard Ayoade — the entire ensemble is fairly unimpeachable. If I have one complaint, it’s that the teaming of Capaldi and Grant wasn’t quite the Lair of the White Worm reunion I was hoping for.
Paddington 2 is a film that functions, not only on the basis of its inherent charm but also on the level of commitment displayed both in front of and behind the camera. Everyone involved seems to take this fanciful story of a well-mannered bear very seriously, as though Paddington’s relentless optimism could be a panacea for the dark times in which we live. And who knows? There might just be something to that theory. At any rate, like its predecessor, Paddington 2 is more than bearable. Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, Strand of Waynesville.