Grin and bear it
Every once in a while in the flood of disposable (even downright awful) movies trying to separate children from their parents’ money, one comes along that redeems them all. In 2014, Paddington, from Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear children’s books, was one of those. Writer-director Paul King showed the people behind Ferdinand, The Nut Job, Ice Age et al. just… how… it’s… done. In Paddington 2, he shows them again. No. 1 was a delightful surprise; No. 2 may be less surprising, but it’s just as delightful, and it proves the first one was no fluke.
First a word about Ben Whishaw, who voices the CGI Paddington. Whishaw is a perfectly acceptable actor who has done perfectly acceptable work in movies like Skyfall, Brideshead Revisited and The Danish Girl without ever being particularly distinguished. But voicing an animated character can be almost mystically liberating for an actor. Has Tim Allen done anything else as lively as Buzz Lightyear? Or Joan Cusack as cowgirl Jessie? So it is with Whishaw; his Paddington has a placid, openhearted sweetness more indelible than anything he’s done before, and maybe more than he’ll ever do again.
Giving due credit, Whishaw gets a lot of help from the movie’s five credited art directors (supervised by Patrick Rolfe) and hundreds of animation and visual effects techies, not to mention Erik Wilson’s sparkling candy-box cinematography.
But all these production values wouldn’t come to much if the story couldn’t carry them, and that’s where Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby come in. As King and Hamish McColl did the first time, they expand the gentle, fragile whimsy of Bond’s short books to feature length without leaving any awkward or unsightly stretch marks. Paddington’s happy life with the Brown family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin) is disrupted when he’s convicted of stealing a priceless pop-up book of London landmarks from his friend Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent). But the real culprit is their neighbor, has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (a hilariously hammy Hugh Grant, sinking his teeth into villainy with the same relish Nicole Kidman showed in Paddington 1), who knows the book is actually a treasure map and connives to follow its clues to a lost fortune.
In prison, Paddington’s goodness wins over a mob of hard-case inmates, led by the snarling cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson, as hilarious as Grant but more quietly), and before long they’re all swooning over marmalade sandwiches and promising to help clear Paddington’s name.
The border between silly-ass folderol and delightful nonsense may be razor-thin, but you’d never know it from King’s script and direction; Paddington 2 never puts a foot wrong. Like its predecessor, it’s brimming with irresistible charm, the kind of movie that could give “sweetness and light” a good name.
I can hardly wait for Paddington 3. As long as Paul King stays on board.