Paddington 2 may be the finest film I’ve seen this year. It’s early, so that’s easy to say, but it’s rare that a film can so completely captivate me from end to end. I have fond feelings for the 2014 Paddington, a surprise and delight on its own, so I went in expecting disappointment, simply because the first had the element of shock attached–I spent a good portion of it looking at my wife and mouthing “how is this any good?” There was no way that could be repeated, I thought. But the sequel, like the original, balances a razor-sharp line of tone that most films, no matter their scope, rarely maintain. It’s cheerful and distinct, utterly charming, and truly heartfelt.
Most family films aim directly for uplift at the end. Even the oft-disrespected Boss Baby from last year took aim at its audience and, despite a nonsensical plot and mostly weak character work, landed a warm, cheery bullet directly to its audience’s hearts. Watch enough kid-friendly fare and the mechanics of how to do it become fairly clear.
Some contrived low-stakes tension, a musical upswell (hopefully to a recognizable tune), a powerful reunification of feuding characters. Even Pixar’s recent Coco hits these notes with deft precision, using film form to play the audience like so many fiddles.
These tricks are effective, but are, at the end, tricks. Paddington 2 achieves even greater effect, but by wearing its heart on its sleeve instead of hiding behind filmic gloss and the tried and true, despite using many of the same techniques.
At the center is that impossible bear.
Paddington was released after Yogi Bear. After Alvin’s 4th “squeakuel.” Most live action CGI fare is roundly dismissed before it ever hits theaters–even Spielberg’s superbly-crafted BFG was sent packing. It’s easy to see why. Technology has come a long way, but the blending of real and CGI is still a dodgy proposition for most. Film needs suspension of disbelief to work, and every film that blends these two worlds–especially mid-range family fare–struggles.
Never once while watching Paddington 2 did I think “that’s a good CGI bear.” That’s because I didn’t think about how he was a CGI bear at all. Ever. It was just Paddington.
Paul King, director of BBC cult classic comedy “The Mighty Boosh” shoots Paddington like a real character. He’s embedded in the world in a way that other films who’ve tread this ground aren’t often able to achieve. My wife noted after that there was a scene where Paddington is walking with Mrs. Brown (a wonderfully unkempt and cheerful Sally Hawkins), and their hands were intertwined so intricately that she didn’t even think that she wasn’t holding a bear’s hand. There’s a moment between Mrs. Brown and Paddington at the end that I found so stirring that I forgot everything I know about film production and simply marveled at two brilliantly concocted characters interacting–and one of them happened to be a small, lovely bear. It’s hard to pin down the magic sauce that makes that level of involvement possible. Perhaps its the choice to heighten reality from the start.
Both Paddington films begin in darkest Peru, the domain of the talking bears. After we see Paddington in more normal surrounds, but the world is still one of story book quality, with bright colors, Wes Anderson-esque staging (especially an escape sequence in the third act), and diverse, remarkable, visually unique characters. King also works to show how the world accepts Paddington. Never once do characters ask “what’s the deal with the bear?” for an easy joke and wink. Paddington simply is, so we accept him, too.
But it’s not just stellar CGI. Ben Whishaw has somehow crafted a voice for Paddington that is crisp and distinct, undoubtedly British without being cartoonish, refined and lilting without singsong. It honestly sounds like what a bear learning English as a second language might do with the structure, holding on consonants occasionally, clearly capping off words and sentences with an occasional snap of the jaw. All the while, Whishaw infuses Paddington’s voice with endless cheer and concern. Every statement, no matter how seemingly insignificant is met with a careful “Oh,” that reveals Paddington’s deep feeling for everyone and everything around him. It’s impossibly endearing and grounds the character even further.
The rest of the cast is just as impressive. Hugh Grant gives a top performance by doing what he perhaps does best–playing a self-obsessed actor. Director King keeps the tone light even here, however. The villain doesn’t want to end the world in a bath of blue flame. He just needs a little startup money for his one-man show, and the bear gets him started. The Brown family retains most of their quirks from the first film, although Mr. Brown’s (Hugh Bonneville) new work-related mid-life crisis offers some solid visual humor and a rousing finish. His may be the most significant, but each have moved along in ways that make sense. What hasn’t changed at all is their affection for the bear, or their ability to recognize how he has changed their lives for the better, even if it takes them a while to remember now and then.
A bevy of British stars from Brendan Gleeson to Richard Ayoade make appearances, with Gleeson’s turn as “Knuckles” McGinty the most earned and satisfying of them all. If anything, Paddington 2 carries an idealized understanding of British culture on its shoulders, just as the character of Paddington does to people all around the world. Both Paddington films could be summed up by Aunt Lucy’s simple advice to the young bear before leaving darkest Peru–“if we are kind and polite the world will be right.” The film lives this ideal through Paddington, and every character he meets benefits from this simple wisdom. The audience does, too.