The Godfather Part II. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Toy Story 2. A varied few among a larger minority of sequels that built upon, polished off or superseded their predecessors. To that list, one should and will add Paul King’s follow-up to his 2014 hit, Paddington 2, a perfectly performed and wonderfully written family film that will tickle your funny bone and tug on your heart strings to the point of tears.
The plot is relatively simple. Paddington, as voiced by Ben Whishaw, is getting to grips with his life with the Brown family: Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Judy (Madeleine Harris), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Mrs Bird (Julie Walters). He tries to hold down a number of jobs, makes friends with the members of his local community and hopes to accumulate enough copper and silver to pay for a rather rare pop-up book from Mr Gruber (Jim Broadbent), in hope of getting it to his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) for her 100th birthday. What Paddington isn’t expecting is any competition in procuring this valuable artefact: enter Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), struggling stage actor, narcissistic showman and master of disguise, ready to steal the book right from under Paddington’s nose.
Cue a collection of hilarious set-pieces full of brilliant buffoonery, courtesy of a cast that is more than game for a little fun. Firstly, the returning cast of Bonneville, Hawkins and co. deliver charming performances, struggling with identifiable issues in such a light-hearted manner as to weave seamlessly with the puffy fur of the eponymous hero. Newcomer Brendan Gleeson also delivers a finely tuned, suitably pantomimic performance as Knuckles, the archetypal ‘tough on the outside, soft on the inside’ figure. But the most game actor of all? Hugh Grant, who all but steals the show as the fiendishly cunning Buchanan. With his elegant British slurs and decorative costumes, the character instantly becomes one of Grant’s greatest roles, giving rise to some classic moments: Grant, dressed as a nun, infiltrating St Paul’s Cathedral? You get moments like that with Paddington 2 and you’ll relish every laugh it cajoles out of you.
So the always capable cast rather expectedly supplies a plethora of flamboyant, cheerful and heartfelt performances, so befitting to the film’s tone. But what can often be forgotten in a family-orientated film such as this, is the quality of the direction. Paul King and cinematographer Erik Wilson do not disappoint in this regard, crafting a cracking cinematic composition that exuberates with visual wonder and an uplifting narrative spirit. From a single-take sequence involving a sombre prison setting transitioning into something more appealing, to an exciting final act set aboard a train bound for disaster, King and Wilson always find a way to imbue a little technical flavour into the narrative proceedings, wishing to treat our eyes with the same optimistic exuberance that King and Simon Farnaby’s script thrives on. Moreover, for those eagle-eyed film fanatics out there, King’s got a couple of lovely flourishes here for you: with scenic references to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as a beautifully timed and faithful nod to Charlie Chaplin’s famous cog gag in Modern Times, King and Wilson’s filmic allusions are not pastiche for the sake of it, but are used sparingly as a means of reaching out to those who would naïvely accuse Paddington 2 of just being another ‘kids movie’.
What seals the deal though, in cementing Paddington 2 as above and beyond the ‘kids movie’ signification, is its aspiring morality. Like Zootopia last year, Paddington 2 isn’t just a technically proficient piece of entertainment. It’s also got some backbone to its wonderfully tempered flesh. No, the film is not going to preach at you, or demand you to change your ways: Paul King wants you to feel invested in these characters, feel at home with the Brown family, feel any and all positive sentiment. But it is exactly this fact that contributes to Paddington 2’s foundational and fundamental philosophy: Paddington, the foreign figure who just wants to make a living to provide for those he loves, is at home with and welcomed by his neighbours, who soon realise that he’s as much a member of their community as they are. It’s this theme of inclusivity that is so timely and so effortlessly implemented within the narrative: we come to care for all these characters and so, we wish for their collaboration and subsequently feel empowered by and at ease with their integration.
It’s this kind of subtle commentary that sets Paddington 2 apart from the competition. The performances are comical yet earnest, the cinematography is referential yet appealing. But the ethical principles that lay at the heart of Paul King’s sequel define it as entertainment of the highest order, fostered from three utmost ingredients that’ll make any Wizard of Oz happy: a heart, a brain and some courage. That is what makes Paddington 2 one of the best films of the year.