I don’t want to review Paddington 2: I want to live in it, and invite you to live in it with me.
In its gentleness of spirit, its unassuming courtesy, goodwill and boundless whimsy, it could be called a rebuke to the slickness, freneticism and crassness of nearly all mainstream Hollywood family entertainment, except the very British Paddington 2 wouldn’t dream of rebuking anyone or anything.
It would just say something kind and understanding to Lego Batman and Despicable Me 3 — or, at most, it would fix The Emoji Movie and Smurfs: The Lost Village with a hard stare — and they would feel kind of sheepish, and realize they ought to do better.
Alas, the makers of those films are unlikely to get the memo. Pretty much everyone in Hollywood would rather make the next Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle than the next Paddington. A few decades from now, though, Jumanji will barely be an asterisk in Dwayne Johnson’s remarkable career, and the kids watching Paddington 2 today will be eagerly introducing their own children to it.
Possibly you missed the first Paddington movie, which related how the ursine protagonist of the popular children’s stories by Michael Bond acquired his English skills, taste for marmalade and red bucket hat, and how he came to leave darkest Peru to live in London with the Brown family.
Written and directed by Paul King and produced by the U.K.’s Heyday Films and France’s StudioCanal, Paddington blazed a trail notably at odds with Hollywood family fare — a trail the sequel extends and develops.
To start with, the protagonist — gravely voiced to fuzzy perfection by Ben Whishaw — is unfailingly earnest, polite and thoughtful, if rather naive and disaster-prone.
He doesn’t have grand dreams of success or stardom, and he is not misunderstood by disapproving parents or driven to rebel against them in order to follow his heart. On the contrary, he writes faithfully to his beloved Aunt Lucy, and in this film he repeatedly quotes her civilizing maxim: “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”
There is admittedly an element of parental stereotyping in the Brown family parents, Henry and Mary (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, both wonderful), with Mom as more perceptive and empathic and Dad as a less understanding, more absurd figure, though more affectionately and less confrontationally drawn than in a typical Disney or Pixar film.
Paddington 2 finds our hero, now a fixture in the Browns’ diverse Windsor Gardens neighborhood, looking for a job to earn money to buy Aunt Lucy a perfect birthday present: a pop-up book of London landmarks that is the focus of one of the film’s loveliest and most inspired flights of fancy.
In the previous movie, London was first seen in a snow globe, and the fanciful depiction of the city in both films has this kind of picturesque model/storybook feel — a token of the Wes Anderson–esque dollhouse aesthetic explicitly invoked in both movies.
Paddington’s efforts to make money for his aunt’s present are subject to the same woes as most of his endeavors, but he is ingenious and tenacious enough that his bad luck usually changes at some point.
Sooner or later there will be a plot, and probably a bad guy, but the Paddington movies are more willing than most family fare to just groove along on drollery and charm, visual invention and comic conceits — all of which King orchestrates with wit and restraint. In terms of pacing and tone, this franchise at times invites welcome comparison to Studio Ghibli. (Lighter, sillier Ghibli, like Ponyo.)
Nicole Kidman’s ruthless taxidermist in the first movie, a soul sister to Cruella de Vil, was a hilariously over-the-top villainess who was possibly darker and scarier than the movie really needed. Here, with Hugh Grant as a preening has-been actor named Phoenix Buchanan on the trail of hidden treasure, the franchise finds just the right sort of antagonist for our hero.
Grant’s Buchanan is a delight because he’s so delighted with himself. Despite being reduced to trading on his posh persona in humiliating dog-food commercials, he remains so infatuated with his past roles and his own dazzling blue eyes that he almost can’t help giving himself away.
Unlike Kidman’s character, Buchanan is only accidentally pitted against Paddington — both want the same thing, rather than the villain wanting Paddington himself — but the consequences for Paddington are almost as dire, and in a way even more daunting, since there is no way for the Browns to help or rescue him.
Somewhat more directly pitted against Paddington are a motley crew of convicts led with just the right note of comic menace by Brendan Gleeson.
But Paddington’s stiff upper lip and his rigorous generosity toward all are a force of nature. “Paddington looks for the good in all of us,” Henry Brown insists to a hostile interlocutor, “and somehow he finds it.”
Like the heroine of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Paddington’s kindness is a superpower: one that not only shields him from the darker side of human nature, but transforms reality around him, inviting others — viewers as well as characters — into his personal zone of decency.
In Paddington’s absence, meanwhile, the zone of decency around Windsor Gardens may be fading somewhat.
Paddington is a natural symbol of “the Other” — a Peruvian bear arriving in London with no resources but the kindness and hospitality of strangers — and his initially indifferent reception in the first film, so different from his expectations, suggested that Londoners might have lost something important. (Paddington’s idea of London came from World War II–era stories, when children evacuating London congregated on train platforms wearing identifying labels, heading to unknown destinations — photos of which inspired Bond’s creation of Paddington.)
Thus, how Paddington is received by others and welcomed (or not) is in some way a measure of our own humanity, and his presence among us has a humanizing effect, even if he isn’t strictly human himself.
The plot turns on a lovingly crafted objet d’art found in the antique shop run by Jim Broadbent’s Mr. Gruber. Gruber’s shop is a quirky house of oddments and curios where you might find almost anything, including the one perfect thing you’re looking for. At a time when family fare feels increasingly mass-produced and off the shelf, is it too much to hope that Gruber’s shop might stay in business for a long time to come, and continue not to disappoint?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.