It seems miraculous when a film adaptation gets a much beloved character just right, but when the sequel is even better? That's nearly impossible. That's a unicorn. Director Paul King (with writer Hamish McColl) managed to set the bar high with 2015's "Paddington," and now, incredibly, King and co-writer Simon Farnaby raise it with "Paddington 2," bringing the warmth and gentle humor of the late Michael Bond's indelible children's books to the screen, along with Britain's finest actors.
Paddington Brown (voiced by Ben Whishaw) has a singular sense of style, his brown fur complemented by his navy duffel coat, floppy red hat and ubiquitous suitcase. While "Paddington" followed his adventure meeting his new (human) family in London, The Browns, "Paddington 2" focuses on his relationship with his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), the bear who fished him out of a river in Peru as a cub. Paddington wants nothing more than to give her a thoughtful birthday present, but his hapless hijinks in attempting to do so lead him far away from his home with the Browns.
It all starts so innocently enough — Paddington hopes to save up enough money to buy his aunt a pop-up book of London, so he resorts to various odd jobs and washing windows around his neighborhood. But the book proves to be far more valuable than he expects, and when a thief makes off with it in the night, Paddington is unfairly framed for the crime. He lands in jail even though all signs point to washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a master of disguise who seems a bit too interested in the whereabouts of the book.
Prison is a bit dark and edgy for a children's movie, but it's a chance for Paddington to truly show off the power of his charm. Soon enough, he's got the prisoners bedecked in pink stripes, happily munching marmalade sandwiches in a sort of childlike fairy tale existence. He even wins over the gruff prison cook Knuckles McGinty, played by Brendan Gleeson, in one of the film's most delightful supporting performances.
Paddington's tale is buoyed by the tremendous cast of performers around the animated bear. Gleeson and Grant might steal the show, but Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent and a wonderfully diverse array of actors populate Paddington's London, a place that's cozy and cheery largely because he is. Whishaw's smart, wry and sweet voice performance as Paddington embodies the good-natured and gentle ethos of the character, and ultimately, the film itself.
King's cinematic style, aided by Erik Wilson's soaring, swooping cinematography and Dario Marianelli's score, is a dash of Wes Anderson and a sprinkle of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, swirled around with a wonderfully fluid sense of airiness and light. It's mannered, yet carefree, colorful, and evocative.
What these "Paddington" films express so beautifully is simply an overwhelming sense of goodness — a rare commodity in the world today. Paddington insists if you're nice and polite, the world will be right. That notion has been so battered and bruised lately, you'd be forgiven for cynically thinking the little bear might have to learn that's not always true. He does endure his trials, but, miraculously, the world bends to his will, not the other way around. Isn't it wonderful — a miracle even — to see nice and polite prevail for once?
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Imelda Staunton.
Directed by Paul King.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor.