Full disclosure. As a nine year-old school librarian (with power that was intoxicating), each time a new edition of Paddington arrived for borrowing, it would immediately disappear before processed for the shelves. There was no way that particular series of hardcover books were going public for other kids to manhandle until they were read from cover to cover by yours truly, such was the allure of Britain’s most famous cuddly bear; not the one obsessed with honey, the other one; the one that went nowhere without an emergency marmalade sandwich hidden under his shapeless, floppy hat.
Originally from darkest Peru, the bear who sailed to England, then was later found alone at London’s Paddington Station and adopted by the Brown family – hence the name, Paddington Brown – is such a staple of the Great British modern culture that the idea of committing cherished characters to film with live actors was not initially welcomed. Yet, the biggest surprise of UK cinemas in 2014 (2015 in American theatres) was just how respectful and practically perfect in almost every way the widescreen adventure of the huggable bear turned out to be. And now there’s a sequel, Paddington 2, and here’s the good news: it’s even better than the first.
As with the 2014 release, Paddington 2 gives a brief, introductory scene deep in the jungles of darkest Peru when Paddington was a cub and lived with his Uncle Pastuzo (voiced by Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). Both aunt and uncle had dreams of visiting London, the land of marmalade. “Any city that can come up with something like this,” Uncle Pastuzo would say with a marmalade sandwich in hand, “Is okay by me.”
Several bear years and one hit movie later, Paddington has now settled comfortably with his middle class family in 32 Windsor Gardens, not far from Notting Hill in London. For the record, even though the location is correct, there is no number 32. This time, the plot revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy the expensive, vintage pop-up book of London landmarks, the one he found in Mr. Gruber’s antique shop. Paddington wants to send it overseas to his Aunt Lucy, who is now in a home for elderly bears in Peru, but he doesn’t have the money, so the little bear embarks on several odd jobs to raise the pennies.
That’s the initial premise, but things get complicated when the preening, prissy and somewhat villainous actor, Phoenix Buchanan (a genuinely laugh-out-loud Hugh Grant) comes into the picture. Knowing that each page of that vintage pop-up leads to a clue regarding the whereabouts of some hidden treasure, Buchanan dons a theatrical disguise (he’s Magwitch from Great Expectations) steals the book in an overnight smash ‘n grab from Mr. Gruber’s shop, and frames Paddington for the crime. Yes, Paddington goes to prison.
As with the 2014 release, the success of the big screen Paddington rests firmly on lessons learned from the Harry Potter films. Author J.K.Rowling had insisted without compromise that everything on the wizardry screen remain English just as written, without the taint of Hollywood intruding on the references, characters, or storytelling. Paddington is the same. The appeal of the piece works because of how true it remains to its setting and author Michael Bond’s eccentric characters. Audiences outside of the British Isles may not get all the jokes or the quick, pantomimesque asides – they may not even register as jokes – but a lack of knowing everything Brit spoils nothing. The clumsy, slapstick nature of Paddington’s quest to be a window cleaner has the essence of classic silent comedy, while the funny, climactic chase involving not one but two steam engines racing across the English countryside is reminiscent of a live action Wallace & Gromit. Plus, when behind bars, Paddington’s washing machine accident causes all the prisoner’s black and white stripes to turn pink, the scene is not only visually funny, American audiences – Maricopa County ones in particular – won’t be able to stop Sheriff Joe’s now dismantled Tent City from springing to mind.
There’s also good humor to be found in several blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em newspaper headlines, scrapbook collections, plus dialog in general. When Paddington and some fellow prisoners, including Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles McGinty and Noah Taylor as Phibs, make their break, look for a quick flash of a newspaper headline stating ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card Is Not Legally Binding, Says Judge.’ A scrapbook of Paddington’s theatre trip to London’s West End displays a ticket for ‘Bearfoot in the Park.” And best of all is the warning that comes from Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird who tells a roomful of some of Britain’s best actors, including both Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins returning as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, that, “Actors are the most devious people on the planet. They lie for a living.” You can just imagine the moment when director Paul King shouted, “And… cut.” Those on the set must have fell about in laughter.
And don’t be in a hurry to leave once the end credits roll or you’ll miss Hugh Grant performing Rain on the Roof (Go Pit-Pitty-Pat) from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. It’s a wonderfully funny payoff to everything seen previously, and Grant is so unexpectedly good with the whole silliness.
Shot with a color palette of blues, browns and Christmas reds, in Paddington’s London, the city is seen as an enchanting land for fairy tales. In a moment of fantasy when the little bear imagines himself walking through the pages of the classic pop-up book with his Aunt Lucy, the imagination behind the animation with each London landmark, from Tower Bridge to Piccadilly Circus, is wonderfully explored and executed. No commercial for an overseas English vacation has ever made the international city look so magically appealing. The industry for British tourism must be thrilled. From beginning to end, Paddington 2 is a total delight.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 105 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)