After a month when the media has been dominated by stories of bullies and predators, how refreshing it is to revel in a film whose central message is kindness, courtesy and respect for others. To some, the idea of an animated movie about an eternally polite and optimistic bear might sound cloying, the visual equivalent of peanut butter sticking to the roof of one’s mouth, yet Paddington 2, a rare instance of a warranted sequel, effortlessly strikes the right balance between gentle humour and warmhearted whimsy.
The result is a film that not only recaptures the blithely anarchic spirit of the original but also does justice to the beloved source material. The tone is set right from the outset: in a series of perfectly paced set-ups, notably a Mouse Trap style burst of prat-falling in an old-fashioned barbershop, Paddington takes on part-time work to pay for a rare and very expensive pop-up book, a gift for his aunt Lucy. This leads to one of many of the movie’s visual treats: an arresting animated sequence in which the two bears make their way through the flipping pages of the book itself, ducking through the crowds and pointing towards London landmarks, all drawn in the style that fans will immediately recognise. Such flights of fancy are common in Paddington 2, which sees returning director Paul King fill the frame with colour, detail and personality.
Yes, we are presented with a fairytale version of the capital city as a place where neighbours greet each other cheerily each morning and where ska bands appear at random performing meta-textual songs that both act as incidental music and comment on proceedings. Yes, there is the argument that this jolly depiction of a multicultural society is a thinly-veiled argument against the myopia and cruelty of Brexit (in actual fact, it is more convincing when read as a film that champions adoption and care for the underprivileged), yet this is missing the point. Paddington 2 is not that interested in scoring political points – children, to be fair, are not that attuned to the finer points of European Law. Rather, it is a work that appeals to all ages without ever descending into nudge, nudge vulgarity or toilet humour.
The sweet spot between adults and young ones is tapped by two stunning turns: Hugh Grant, gamely sending up his own image, as villain Phoenix Buchanan, a pompous thesp whose star is firmly in the descent; and the always value for money Brendan Gleeson as “Knuckles” McGinty, a hard man prison cook who Paddington befriends after being falsely incarcerated in a jail that is more like an after school detention than maximum security chokey. The prison settings give both cast and crew free reign with joyously daft musical interludes and choreographed action segments that bustle with good-natured slapstick.
Cineastes will appreciate the many references to Ealing comedies gone by, and at the centre is Gleeson, whose imposing physical form is consistently undercut by his kindly eyes and slightly exaggerated accent. Gleeson excels at mocking the cliche of the hard man with a heart of gold, as does Grant, no longer viable as a love interest for ditzy female assistants, drawing instead upon decades of treading the boards with self-important buffoons. It speaks volumes that Grant’s performance never resorts to nastiness – remember that this is a story that illuminates the good in people, and in that same light Buchanan is a pantomime figure to be pitied, not reviled.
Credit must also be given to Ben Whishaw, whose soft tones, cadences and occasional growls are perfect for the voice of Paddington – at no point does he lower himself to the shrill melodrama commonly abused by famous actors labouring in children’s movies. Paddington’s interaction with each of the film’s many eccentric individuals is both believable and deeply touching. It is Whishaw’s intuitive performance that makes an extended action set-piece, a whizz-bang chase that recalls The Wrong Trousers and Mission Impossible, all the more affecting.
Tears will surely be jerked at the possibility of this bear – who at all times should be looked after, thank you – being placed in mortal peril. It is impressive that the film’s crescendo so delicately juggles adventure and comedy. There are many reasons to find Paddington 2 charming but its eponymous character – a hero, in his own small way – is the one that resonates most powerfully. Ross Thompson
Paddington 2 is on wide release.