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Paddington 2's Lovely Tenderness Reminds Us Of The Good In People

Affectionate, invigorating, and visually inventive, Paddington 2 cherishes the heart and wit of its predecessor.

The first Paddington movie was one of 2014's pleasant surprises, thanks to mesmerizing art direction, writer-director Paul King's good humor, and his large cast of committed performances. Overcoming the mild drawback of its 1950s origin (from the series of children book by Michael Bond, who died last summer and is honored in the credits), Paddington conveys the timeless lesson of tolerance to viewers of all ages. The journey of its anthropomorphic, marmalade-loving bear from Darkest Peru to London cements the importance of family without being limited by its family-movie trappings.

A sequel should cultivate characters on conflict and growth after they seem settled and contented from the previous movie's ending. So when Paddington 2 is announced with a silly trailer, admirers of the first movie were skeptical of the necessity for such a continuation. The movie turns out a crowd pleaser as expected, but King's take on the next chapter of the optimistic bear in London holds more substance than that.

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Paddington 2's unabashed sincerity and irresistible warmth successfully articulate a lovely experience. The movie opens with a flashback to Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) and Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon). The couple was preparing for their London trip when they spotted a distressed cub and rescued him. This, of course, was Paddington (Ben Whishaw), and the scene sets up the emotional crux of the movie.

Back to the present, Paddington settles in with his adoptive family, the Browns, and spreads positivity in the Windsor Gardens. He enlivens the day of his neighbors by bringing a bohemian lady (Marie-France Alvarez) breakfast or reminding a forgetful man (Sanjeev Bhaskar plays Dr. Jafri with wonderful obliviousness) of his house keys. When Paddington's not around, everyone sees how important his presence is.

With his new family and friends, Paddington misses his Aunt Lucy, who is staying in Peru and whose 100th birthday is nearing. (She and Uncle Pastuzo postponed their London trip to raise Paddington.) Because she hasn't been here yet, he decides her birthday present would be a London experience closest to an actual visit: a beautiful pop-up book at the antique store owned by Mr. Gruber (a benign Jim Broadbent). This purpose expedites wonderful character development for Paddington, whose delightful innocence reminds viewers of their first piggy banks, to earn enough money to buy the book.

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It's all-ages fun to watch Paddington trying and failing various jobs before choosing window-washing. His generosity reaches many hearts, or stomachs in a later case, and turns people around for the better. One particular scene I love is when Paddington carries on washing the windows of the sequestered Colonel Lancaster (Ben Miller) despite his grouchy refusal. As the light shines into his cold room, he gratefully looks outside and finds love on the other side of the street.

Fluidly moving around human characters, Paddington comes to life via photorealistic renditions and well-composed shots of interactions, which nail spatial clarity and eyeline match. Aiding the movements is Whishaw's voice—inquisitive, smart, and emotionally affecting. The young actor found the sweet spot of whimsical compassion for his cordial bear, instead of leaning on neglect or feeble-mindedness.

The main conflict arises as the villain introduces himself—Hugh Grant in his most baroque finesse and euphoric exaggeration as Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up celeb who now stars in dog-food commercials. Grant is always beguiling with Shakespearian theatrics, be it the campy disguises Buchanan dons to enter restricted areas or an extravagant epilogue with his "Rain on the Roof" burlesque. He grooms himself as Buchanan indulges in a delusion of vain grandeur among a dozen of dressed-up mannequins. Between Grant's actual headshots in the background and jabs at the scandalous celebrities (especially bits targeting at the acting job), the role is so meta that one can ironically expect a career resurrection for him.

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Seeing opulent wealth in the pop-up book, Buchanan steals it from Mr. Gruber's store. Paddington, in a sleepless night, encounters that crime. Before he can understand the incident and after Buchanan vanishes, the police arrive in time to arrest this naïve, flabbergasted do-gooder.

It's been a short while since the first movie, and the Browns move on to new endeavors. The sunny, generous Mary (Sally Hawkins) is waddling in new recreational waters, training to swim across the English Channel. Her husband Henry (Hugh Bonneville) must deal with a disappointment at work while facing a little crisis of middle-age self-confidence. (Side note: the flashbacks regarding his marksmanship and nickname "Bullseye" are particularly significant.) Judy (Madeleine Harris), after an inevitable break-up, buries herself into the business of a no-male newspaper, while Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) suppresses his passion for steam trains by pretending to be a hipster.

With Buchanan's heists in plain sight, the movie doesn't hold its dramatic irony for long. Mary suspects Buchanan for good reasons—other than his weird self-aggrandizement, even in court, and a conveniently telling parrot. When she investigates the case, Henry refuses to support her at first. These developments are fundamental to the solutions of Paddington's troubles, and the wise, snarky Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) keeps family members together during overheated debates.

The dark turn, in which Paddington is imprisoned, underscores the ursine refugee's positive outlook. This unflappable kindness is infectious anywhere. It doesn't shield him from wrongdoings as a plot armor but encourages people, good or bad, to be their nicer selves—Buchanan included. Paddington's lovable clumsiness leads to a hilarious situation when a red sock is mixed into a laundry session. Yikes! That won't go well for the little bear, and the stake rises even higher during a meal with surly inmates.

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People seem to love Grant the most, but my favorite part of Paddington 2 is Brendan Gleeson as the stout, grumpy chef Knuckles McGinty, who dishes out unsavory soup every day. Paddington's orange-marmalade brings revolution to the chef's complementary and creates a comic scenario where tough guys confess their hidden flair for cooking.

Comedian Simon Farnaby, now co-writing the script with King, also returns as one of the first movie's fan-favorites. He plays the same shabby security guard, packing another hilarious verbal gag by vividly describing something he never got a close-up look. Other colorful supporting characters include Eileen Atkins as a fortune teller, Tom Conti a grumpy judge teased by Paddington's accidental mischief, and IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade a forensic investigator. Peter Capaldi is brilliantly rude as the neighborhood's busybody, who tries every way to remove Paddington from the place that needs him the most.

The plot sounds complicated for a 103-minute family movie, but King and Farnaby's necessarily fast-and-loose script runs along with the former's near-perfect comic timing. King, who matures from idiosyncratic comedies like The Bull and the Bunny and TV show The Mighty Boorish, peaks with a spellbinding narrative that utilizes characters to the most attractive and naturalistic effects. He tackles mature themes with either wholehearted seriousness or tactful subtlety—never vague obscenity. His staging and visual choice elevate familiar jokes; his hijinks employ the flippant slapstick a la Chaplin, Keaton, and popular cartoons. The third act, reinforced by brilliant setups, is less formulaic and more engrossing (than that of the first movie) with a fast-moving set piece. It involves two trains, a plane, and important objects initiated from the first act.

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The splendid art direction by King, cinematographer Erik Wilson, and production designer Gary Williamson makes Paddington 2 a visual feast. At moments, viewers recognize Wes Anderson's apparent inspiration in the framing and the candy-colored Windsor Gardens, but the movie accomplishes more demanding tasks. London's scenic landmarks transpire with a wondrous sense of magical luxury in the pop-up book scene—Wilson's frames swirl to a gorgeous re-imagination of the city in the art style of Bond's books. Taking fantasy up a notch, King inserts a dreamy sequence where Paddington is lost in his wish for freedom. See, this movie can become heart-breaking so fast without the dullness.

The incisive message against xenophobia—still respecting the 50s gracious quaintness—celebrates racial diversity among London's immigrant community. Though it seems obvious once or twice, the movie lets its audience feel the well-thought sentiment through conviction and dramatic momentum. Affectionate, invigorating, and visually inventive, Paddington 2 cherishes the heart and wit of its predecessor.