The Bear is Back
It’s so rare to get a sequel that not only understands what made the original film enjoyable but also enhances and capitalizes on those aspects in every way. Paddington 2, the follow-up to Paddington (2014), does just that and find itself comfortably being one the best sequels I’ve ever seen. While not quite on the level of The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens, I’d sincerely argue that it comes close to joining them in sequel quality. It’s every bit as joyful and heartfelt as the first, full of well-rounded performances, and even has its own fair share of narrative surprises.
It’s been some time since the titular Paddington moved into Windsor Gardens with the Brown family.
The young bear has now become a staple of the neighborhood, helping the garbage man learn his routes and reminding forgetful neighbors of their left-behind keys. For his Aunt Lucy’s birthday, Paddington sets his eyes on an antique pop-up book of London, unwittingly putting the disgraced and disgruntled stage actor Phoenix Buchannan, played by Hugh Grant, on its trail too. When Buchannan steals the book and Paddington takes chase, the bear is the one who takes the fall for the crime, landing him in prison. The London pop-up, it turns out, contains a treasure map hidden in the pages, so as Buchanan follows the treasure trail, the Browns are left to find the real culprit and set Paddington free.
The film that unfolds is quite simply a joy top to bottom. Every shot jumps off the screen, colors are accented and built upon, while the set design is next to perfect. Impressive vistas of London landmarks, outrageously large musical numbers, and small, intimate comedic moments—this film has got it all. It’s unafraid to take visual risks, like having entire sequences takes place inside of a storybook or a dollhouse-style setup; director Paul King, whose only major credits are the two Paddington movies, has delivered a phenomenal film. Every scene is carefully crafted, and every visual choice is made to delight. It’s such a visually whimsical film that you could watch it with the sound off and still feel how contagiously fun it is.
The soundtrack is just as imaginative and important to that consistent sense of fun. The music makes itself known; it’s felt and it’s heard in every scene. The street jazz band from the first film returns for a couple of high energy numbers, and they’re just as enjoyable as before.
In fact, many of the film’s best sequences are quite obviously inspired by the silent era; Keaton and Chaplin would be amused and impressed with the choreography of these scenes. I hesitate to call them “action” sequences, they’re hardly quickly-cut Transformer battles, but they’re noticeably distinctive from the rest of the film. One of these scenes, which sees Paddington attempt to learn his way around a barber shop, stands out. There’s very little dialogue, and most of the comedy is physical, but it’s not funny just because it’s physical, It doesn’t trick you into laughing simply because it’s loud, like a lesser children’s movie might. No, it’s funny because it’s genuinely funny. The film takes time to set up gags and deliver upon them.
The cast, most of whom are returning from Paddington (2014), bring with them the same warmth we saw in the first film. The Brown children have grown up, and while their high school personas are rather uncomplicated, there’s enough there to keep it relatable and not too stereotypical. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville return as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, Paddington’s new parents, and their progression from the first film is subtle yet heartwarming. When Paddington is accused and arrested, his family never once doubt him, and they start fighting for his release immediately, played with absolute conviction by a cast who truly embody their roles.
While the first film saw Nicole Kidman in the villainous role, Paddington 2 gives us an antagonist in the form of Hugh Grant, who seems made for the role. Everything from his arrogant self-interest to his hilarious complex costumes and ruses makes for an entertaining villain. His motivations aren’t all that nuanced, and it’s a bit odd that the primary antagonist is yet again executing their plan in the name of their grandparent, but Grant is a delight to watch. There are multiple scenes that feature him just talking to himself as various famous stage roles, and watching his Scrooge argue with his Macbeth over the nature of their next target is just as riotously fun as the rest of the film.
Not to be overlooked is Ben Whishaw, the voice of Paddington Bear himself. It’s almost too easy to forget that Paddington Bear doesn’t actually exist and that every move the bear makes on screen is heavily altered. It’s a testament to the visual effects team, yes, but Whishaw’s grounded and believable performance certainly plays a part as well.
It also can’t be ignored that Paddington 2 feels almost like a direct response to Brexit, the refugee crisis and the growing tension regarding immigration around the world. The film wears its opinions on its sleeve, unafraid of making it clear what side of the argument it aligns with. A stirring speech from Mr. Brown near the end of the film about Paddington’s place in the neighborhood and how it’s better now that he’s here underscores this. King switches between the commentary and the comedy with an expert touch. It never once feels jarring or heavy-handed, just honest and real.
All in all, Paddington 2 is incredibly refreshing. It’s an enjoyable romp on every level, and well worth watching no matter your age or who you see it with. It’s concise, visually stunning, emotionally resonant and genuinely funny, taking audiences on a wild ride from Windsor Gardens to prison. Paddington encourages everyone to be their best self, and it’s hard not to feel that when leaving the theater. The film is everything it needs to be and more.