Before its release three years ago, Paddington might not have seemed like a promising proposition. A live-action adaptation of Michael Bond’s series of children’s books, it suggested another cash-grab cannibalization of a beloved book property, the British answer to such dreadful early-aughts Dr. Seuss adaptations as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, only with a computer-generated bear in the place of Mike Meyers wearing a creepy cat suit. But thanks to director Paul King’s oddball vision, the film turned out to be one of the most charming, stylish, distinctive, and genuinely funny children’s movies in recent memory—a film that honored Bond’s original stories while infusing them with a madcap sensibility all its own.
Now it turns out that the film was merely a prelude to the gloriously daffy absurdism of Paddington 2, a wilder, weirder, funnier, more heartfelt and eye-popping, and, above all, more fully realized representation of King’s eccentric sensibility. Fusing the pastry-shop aesthetic of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel with Chaplinesque slapstick and a whimsical, fable-like approach to narrative, King plops us into a world out of time—one full of carnivals, pop-up books, junk shops, steam engines, and calypso bands that magically appear out of nowhere to sing songs about window washing.
Set a few years after the events of the first film, Paddington 2 sees the red-hatted, blue-raincoated Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) settled into his life with the Brown family. He’s also an integral member of the local community. For his Aunt Lucy’s (Imelda Staunton) 100th birthday, the bear resolves to send her the perfect gift: an antique pop-up book of famous London sights. But before he can save up enough to buy it, the book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an aging actor now reduced to appearing in dog food commercials. Worse, Paddington is accused and convicted of the theft, after which he’s sent to prison, living alongside intimidating inmates like Knuckles—or “Nuckel’s” as it’s misspelled on his tattooed fists—McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, the Browns desperately scramble to solve the crime, catch the real thief, and clear Paddington’s name.
Throughout Paddington, King seemed at times constrained by the relatively formulaic kiddie-film plot, but here he’s liberated to give life to his silliest and most outlandish impulses. And thus, Paddington’s stints as a barber and a window washer early in Paddington 2 become excuses for extravagantly choreographed physical comedy, with Paddington klutzing around like an ursine spin on Norman Wisdom. Later, through the purity of Paddington’s spirit—as well as the deliciousness of his marmalade sandwiches—the prison is transformed from a drab concrete cage into the coziest place this side of the Bake Off tent, full of pink-clad prisoners, flower arrangements, dessert displays, bedtime stories, and choreographed dance numbers.
But perhaps King’s most delightfully preposterous creation is Paddington’s antagonist, Phoenix. A Woosterian riff on the Shakespearean madman played by Vincent Price in Douglas Hickox’s Theatre of Blood, the character offers Grant an opportunity to out-overact the great ham himself—a feat he accomplishes with such shit-eating glee that you can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been doing this sort of swing-for-the-fences camp his whole career.
All this nuttiness could have become exhausting if not for the sense of heart that undergirds the entire film. In our current era of relentless vulgarity and endemic mistrust, Paddington 2 stands out for its atmosphere of homey cheer and profound belief in the harmonizing power of warmth, politeness, and the absurd. The magic of King’s film is that it doesn’t merely espouse these virtues, but embodies them in every lovingly crafted frame.