The Little Bear Goes to the Big House
DIRECTED BY PAUL KING/2018 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
When we last saw Paddington Bear on the big screen, he had happily settled in with the Brown family, nestled safely in the heart of picturesque London. This was much to chagrin of the evil villain played by Nicole Kidman, whose dastardly plan was overthrown in the last minutes of director Paul King’s 2014 (early 2015 In the U.S.) initial adaptation of the beloved character, Paddington.
That film proved to be one of that year’s most delightful surprises; a fine family film that not only had a lot to say, but knew just how to say it. Paddington 2, it’s good report, follows steadfast in its predecessor’s paw prints.
The fact that the key cast members and director have returned for this round is telling in itself. Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, playing the devoted surrogate parents to Paddington again, perfectly voiced by Ben Whishaw, as well as Peter Capaldi, again the local crank who can’t abide a bear in the neighborhood, likely have full professional dance cards. Yet here they are, in a family film sequel prone to much stateside dismissal, giving it their collective all once again. The scope and storybook whimsy of the first film are recaptured, albeit in a broader, more realistic manner this time around. All the more fitting, since the central plot device this time is in fact an actual ornate pop-up storybook, depicting an illustrated 2.5-D rendering of London.
…this first sequel is nonetheless an ideal family film experience, colorful, well-rendered, wondrous and enjoyable to both adults and children.
Enter our bad guy, an acclaimed ham actor called Phoenix Buchanan, played with glowering aplomb by none other than Hugh Grant. Buchanan spends the film going through a series of cockamamie disguises, in effect “acting” his way to his treacherous goal, a hidden treasure which can only be had by following clues hidden in the London pop-up book.
Earlier, by pure coincidence, Paddington happens upon the rare, one-of-a-kind book in a quaint resale shop. He quickly recognizes that such a lovely book would be the perfect gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy, the kindly bear that rescued him and raised him in Darkest Peru. After all, it was Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) who instilled him with the moral compass that gets his through life, and who’s wisdom he can never resist sharing. She’s always wanted to see London. This book would be the next best thing to actually being able to visit in person.
But, before Paddington can earn the considerable sum needed to buy the book, the book is stolen. It being no secret that he wanted it, Paddington is falsely accused, and sentenced to prison. Meanwhile, Buchanan, who of course was the one who really stole the thing, begins following the clues to untold treasure…
Meanwhile, prison is a bear for a bear, to be sure. Nevertheless, the surly inmates and their dreary existence of clanging, concrete and cold mush meals is nothing a good dose of Paddington kindness can’t fix. A little patience and a mess hall’s worth of our hero’s trademark marmalade sandwiches can mend even the hardest of hearts, in this case belonging to the most frighteningly intimidating inmate, the resident cook, played by Brendan Gleeson.
Paddington 2 is a worthy follow-up in most every, with the exception of any true sense of gravity or stakes. Not that it’s necessarily the wrong choice, but the fact that everything that happens is just do telegraphed ahead of time snips away at any potential staying power the movie might’ve wielded. This is particularly true in light of the first Paddington film being such a rich surprise – perhaps we’ve quickly come to expect the clever. Director Paul King and company deliver in the form of numerous clever set pieces and gags, though the construction of the film itself is by the numbers. Story beats and resolutions that are so pat, one may wonder if Julia Sweeney is nearby. (No true trace of the SNL “It’s Pat!” star, though there’s always Paddington 3, which is apparently already in the works).
If Paddington was a fine surprise of a film, then the biggest surprise of a fully stocked Paddington 2 is that it feels like it could be merely an episode of a Paddington Bear TV series. (“Paddington Goes to Prison!”). It would be a terrific episode, very special, in fact. But as it lands, this first sequel is nonetheless an ideal family film experience, colorful, well-rendered, wondrous and enjoyable to both adults and children. Which is not the worst sentence a film could receive.