Three years ago, when the first Paddington feature film was released, expectations were seriously low. Older viewers were still wedded to the 70s TV cartoon version, the early trailers were far from promising, and Colin Firth had vacated the lead voice role late in the day leaving Ben Whishaw to take it on. To everyone’s delight, though, the finished film turned out to be a rip-snorting, warm-hearted treat. Surely, though, that’s not a trick that can be pulled off twice?
And yet, here comes Paddington 2, and while it doesn’t quite scale the same heights, it’s really not far off at all. Director/co-writer Paul King is back, brandishing a visual sense that’s part Wes Anderson, part Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and altogether a whole lot more striking and appealing than most mainstream British cinema. The original cast has been retained too, with a heap of new additions. It’s certainly great to see whole generations of UK character actors getting a family film series to appear in, though the downside is that not everyone gets a decent piece of the action, reducing fine performers like Jessica Hynes, Richard Ayoade and Sanjeev Bhaskar to doing little more than showing up, smiling and waving.
On the quiet, this is rather an elegant piece of scripting (by King and Mindhorn‘s Simon Farnaby) laying many strands which tie up neatly in the all-action climax. It’s then that the Brown family characters get to shine, which is a relief as prior to that they’re often sidelined by new guest stars Brendon Gleeson (as soft-centred prison cook Knuckles McGinty) and Hugh Grant (as scheming has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan). In particular, the latter’s unbridled turn is a proper show-stealer, making this one of those rare occasions when one can honestly use the phrase “I really enjoyed that film with Hugh Grant in”.
All too often, actors having lots of fun fails to translate into audiences having fun too, but Paddington 2 is something of an exception. Well-marshalled here, the levity becomes infectious. For instance, as the kindly Mr Gruber, Jim Broadbent deploys an accent so totally outrageous it could have its own talk radio show, but it adds to, rather than detracts from, the enjoyment. Credit where it’s due, too, to the star of the show, Ben Whishaw. It’s never going to be the sort of role that wins BAFTAs, but his Paddington Bear is by turns gentle, silly, indignant, determined, and ultimately really rather soulful, and conveying that by voice alone is no mean achievement.
The plot, involving the mystery of a stolen pop-up book, unwinds nicely, with only occasional convoluted moments. Unlike the first film, the menace of the baddie is light and nicely measured, with only judicious use of what censors like to call ‘mild peril’. This time out, there are perhaps more moments of grinding narrative gears and fewer slapstick set-pieces, but it still manages to deliver a suitcase-full of LOLs. Arguably its predecessor managed to conjure magical flights of fancy with more of a flourish and more often, but there are still sequences, such as Paddington’s imaginary meeting with Aunt Lucy (a neat nod back to his 2D TV incarnation), which are bound to delight. There are also some not-very-hidden messages here about inclusion and seeing the good inside people which give it extra substance and for which all involved deserve to be applauded. It’s just a shame that these sometimes require the audience to dislike a character played by Peter Capaldi, a big old ask which just isn’t a natural state of affairs (even Malcolm Tucker, underneath all that weapons-grade cursing, was curiously cherishable).
So no, it may not be meaningful high art, but Paddington 2 succeeds as a precision-built, expertly-realised wheeze, a guaranteed spirit-lifter, and the world is simply a better place for it. Young viewers are surely going to spend their mature years looking back on this with a genuine sense of fond wonder, and three cheers for that.