Paddington 2 (2018)
Dir. Paul King; Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins
[4 out of 4 stars]
I have many fond memories of reading those curious little books about a curious little bear named Paddington. In his red cap and blue raincoat he wandered around the city of London. It seemed a fairy tale to me, and I gazed in wonderment at all his adventures. He introduced me to England, to marmalade, and to the idea that being different, in his case as a bear, is no reason to be kept away from the joys of life. The world he discovered was as unknown to me as it was to him, so while I knew England was real place, the way it was filtered through Paddington’s wonderment made it seem as magical as Narnia or Neverland. When it was announced that a movie adaptation was on its way, I waited with quite baited breath. It’s always a leap of faith to revisit part of your childhood. You can never quite know what it’s been up to while you were busy growing up, but Paddington (2014) was a most wonderful reacquaintance; the movie was charming and heartfelt and brought to life a beloved children’s icon. So it was with great anticipation that I waited for the release of the sequel, Paddington 2 (2018), and I am overjoyed to report that it is a delight, an improvement on the already near-flawless approach to filmmaking on display in the first movie.
Paddington 2 begins where Paddington left off: Paddington (Ben Whishaw) lives happily in Windsor Gardens with Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and Mary Brown (Sally Hawkins), their two children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and their wonderful housekeep Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). All the while, Paddington continues his exploration and adventures. His newest quest is to find a fitting birthday present for his beloved adoptive bear mother Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) who stayed behind in South America when Paddington traveled to London. He finds a pop-up book of London that is just perfect for Lucy, who always wanted to see London but never got the chance. However there is one catch: the book is a one-of-a-kind print by a former carnival mistress, and is far outside Paddington’s price range. No matter, like the persevering young bear he is, he picks up a number of odd jobs to save money. Then, in a fateful visit to the carnival formerly run by the book’s author, Paddington meets the washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) who hears about the book, decides it must be his own, and steals it, framing Paddington in the process. Paddington is hauled off to jail, leaving his family and friends stunned, sure there must be a way to prove his innocence, while Buchanan searches the book for a hidden treasure map that lies within.
Clomping and eating marmalade through all of it is Paddington, a computer-generated figure placed in an otherwise live-action movie, a sort of reverse The Jungle Book (2016). Much has been written about the incredible effects in the most recent Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy (2011, 2014 2017) and the achievement in effects they represented, rendering a civilization of remarkably realistic apes. Paddington 2 takes equally impressive effects in a different direction, making Paddington realistic enough to seem well in place in a live-action London, but preserving a certain story-book fantastical quality. You would never mistake him for an actual bear, but he does not stand out as unreal in the way the cartoons of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) do. This is achieved mostly through a production design that foregrounds whimsy, as well as bright colors. The antique shop where Paddington finds the book is reminiscent of Harry Potter’s room of requirement, stacks on stacks of colorful tidbits and old books, all bathed in a glowing yellow light. Similarly, the Brown’s bedroom is covered in floral red wallpaper with a blue chair in the corner and a soft and warm light that highlight the rich color palette. Director Paul King put care into preserving the look of the books, and so Paddington fits in perfectly. He is animated with such attention to detail that we see his hair ruffle and shine as he chases after the thief Buchanan, and cannot miss the glimmer of a forming tear when he is sentenced to jail time. He needs not look like a “real” bear, only look like one who fits in the movie, and the effects and design make him the perfect bear for the tale. Nonetheless, it is Whishaw who gives Paddington the last bit he needs to come alive: a voice. Perhaps best known to American audiences as Q in the Daniel Craig Bond movies, Whishaw is perfect as Paddington’s voice. His tone is proper but friendly, light but never sheepish, and most importantly, he imbues the bear with an ever-present sense of wonder. Whether he is teaching his new prison friend Nuckles (Brendan Gleeson) how to make marmalade, or taking in the sights at the carnival, Whishaw delivers his lines as if every sight and moment is a marvel worth soaking in.
This wonderment finds its counterpart in Grant’s Buchanan, a performance that may very well be the watermark of his career. Buchanan was once a beloved and respected theatre actor, but his career has reached the point where his most prominent work is serving as the spokesperson for a dog food company. Yet, it is his very acting talents that make him such a brilliant antagonist. He knows that each of the London landmarks depicted in the book has a hidden clue for where the author hid her fortune, and to sneak around each landmark without being spotted he must get deep into character; at St. Paul’s Cathedral he morphs into a nun, while at the Tower Bridge he dons a suit of armour to hide among the decorative pieces, and on and on. Throughout the escapades, he is the measure opposite of Paddington. While our young bear wants nothing more than to use his talents to spread joy, namely in earning money to send Lucy a gift, Buchanan has lost his ability to see the wonderment in the world and therefore can only operate in the cynical way that sees him morph from actor to criminal. Nonetheless, Buchanan remains a rather sympathetic and enjoyable character even as we root against him. Grant has made a career on playing charming men, and it is a lovely bit of casting-against-type to have him turn this charm to villainy, and he commits fully to Buchanan’s flamboyant nature. So we feel for him, a man who once had a career he loved, and now has nothing of the sort. The movie seems to feel the same way, defeating Buchanan but giving him a wondrous final scene that does much to redeem him. I shall not spoil it, but just know it involves Grant, spandex, and a full choir.
One of the joys of the movie is that the supporting cast of characters are written and performed with such care: many may only have a handful of scenes compared to Paddington or Buchanan, but writers King and Simon Farnaby give each character a challenge or quirk that makes them integral to the plot. Nothing is extraneous, as encapsulated wonderfully by the Browns. Henry is in the midst of a light mid-life crisis after missing a promotion at work, Mary is working on a series of children’s books and training to swim across the Channel, Judy started a local newspaper, and Jonathan is smack in the middle of the teenage years where one must hide their love for steam engines and go by the nickname “J-Dawg” to fit in. Each of these wrinkles serves as a characterizing trait, as well as nodding at the skills and knowledge that help to save Paddington. Judy’s reporting skills are the only reason the Browns find vital bits of evidence to build a case for Paddington’s innocence. When Paddington pursues the fleeing Buchanan onto a train, it is Jonathan’s knowledge of steam engines that allows the Browns to follow and assist Paddington. When the train car Paddington is on splashes into a river, Mary is the one who can swim down and save him, and while Henry reminisces about the aim he used to have as a pitcher, it is his rediscovery of this talent that defeats a nearly escaped Buchanan. No character is wasted, and the unity further underscores the importance of love and connection that is one of the movies most central themes: it is only as a family that the Browns can save their most recent addition.
All this would serve to put forth a lovely and heart-warming movie, but King and Farnaby have grander designs. Written during the heat of post-Brexit England, the script is quite aware of contemporary London, and as such tackles the issue directly. When Paddington leaves the Browns house to go out for the day at the start of the movie, he interacts with his neighbors, who are a diverse bunch. There is Dr. Jafri, played by British-Indian actor Sanjeev Bhaskar; Paddington also speaks French with Mademoiselle Dubois (Marie France-Alvarez). In addition, much of the soundtrack is performed by a Calypso band that nods at England’s multicultural musical status and makes magical appearances on screen with Paddington, seemingly a part of the story but not bound by rules of where or when a band can suddenly appear. Additionally, when Paddington is in jail, the connectivity between the many characters and cultures breaks down; people in Windsor Gardens are snippy with their neighbors and seem joyless. It is a bleak picture of what happens when we forget to care for one another, an idea that Paddington embodies.
Furthermore, he may simply be a bear from South America, but Paddington himself is an immigrant framed for a crime committed by a white Englishman. King and Farnaby make this explicitly clear through the neighborhood watch officer Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) who always tells Paddington “I got my eye on you,” a sort of threatening promise that he is just waiting for this outsider to slip up so he can get rid of him. And so, when the Browns have enough evidence to rush off and help Paddington save the day, it is Mr. Curry who blocks their way. Henry steps up to him and delivers a rebuff of Curry’s xenophobia and prejudice, one that transcends the film to speak to the greater British community:
“As soon as you set eyes on that bear you made up your mind about him. Well Paddington’s not like that. He looks for the good in all of us, and somehow, he finds it. It’s why he makes friends wherever he goes, and it’s why Windsor gardens is a happier place whenever he’s around. He wouldn’t hesitate if any of us needed help. So stand aside Mr. Curry, because we’re coming through.”
It is a stirring speech that Bonneville delivers with as much passion as any battle cry or halftime pep talk, and when his car stalls as they try to drive away, the Windsor Garden neighbors crowd around and push the car along until the gear kicks in. It is together as a unified neighborhood, fighting for an image of London that believes in empathy and kindness, that they succeed. Curry is silenced, and love wins the day.
It seems that in this era of national division and antagonism, some filmmakers have taken up the cause of championing visions of empathy and coherence. Paddington 2 appears to be for post-Brexit Britain what Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) was this past summer for our post-Trump-election United States. Mr. Rogers and Paddington bear are both figures that promote a worldview which looks beyond difference and discord to find the common life we all share. Watching both movies, I was warmed by the touch of nostalgia that comes with revisiting something beloved from the past, but moreover I was enlivened by the fact that both films sense the necessity of making projects that stand in protest of a hateful world order. Anyone who tries to tell you that Paddington 2 is simply “kids stuff” has missed the central ideas that Paddington stands for, and desperately needs to see the movie, as everyone should, for the world “is a happier place whenever” Paddington’s around.