It is a distinct delight to recommend "Paddington 2," a film for the whole family that, for a change, really is for the whole family. What’s more, there’s no hint of forced manipulation or condescension. I smiled all the way through it.
The Paddington Bear phenomenon began in 1958 with the first of Michael Bond’s many books about the diminutive Peruvian bear who is dispatched to London by his aunt Lucy and taken in by the solidly middle-class Brown family. Through endless iterations of books, television shows, and much else, the marmalade-loving teddy bear with the duffle coat, scrunched hat, and worn suitcase has over the years become a global folk figure to rival Winnie the Pooh, if not Mickey Mouse.
Has the ongoing commercialization of Paddington erased the innocence of his appeal? Movie-wise at least, this has not happened, not in the 2014 film “Paddington,” nor in its even better sequel, both directed with comic snap and dexterity by Paul King, who also co-wrote the new film with Simon Farnaby.
Set in some vaguely mid-20th-century time warp and combining live action, computer-generated imaging, and animation, “Paddington 2” is structured as a straightforward waggish thriller, but the narrative is replete with all sorts of squiggly subplots and digressions. Paddington (voiced with just the right note of prim wistfulness by Ben Whishaw) has his eyes on a rare, vintage pop-up book of London that he wants to buy as a very special 100th birthday present for his aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton) back in Peru. But the book is stolen from the antique shop owned by Paddington’s good friend Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), and the little bear is mistakenly charged with the crime and imprisoned. Realizing he’s been framed, the Brown family, headed by the ever-abiding Mary (Sally Hawkins), her dyspeptic husband Henry (Hugh Bonneville), and gruff housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) – what a dream cast! – swing into action to ferret out the real culprit.
It’s not giving anything away to identify the thief as Phoenix Buchanan, the preening, self-infatuated actor whose spacious apartment’s walls are festooned only with paintings and photos of himself, and who is played with peerless silliness by Hugh Grant. The British love to mock high theatricality, even as they revel in it, and Grant’s portrayal, like Bill Nighy’s in “Their Finest,” which also featured an over-the-hill matinee idol, mainlines that love. Phoenix has been reduced to being a pitchman for a dog food company, but he still preens as if he were on par with Olivier and Gielgud (“Larry and Johnny,” as he calls them). His campy, gleaming villainy stands in direct opposition to Paddington’s bedrock belief in the innate goodness in everything. That’s why these two are such marvelous foils.
You might expect that Paddington’s relentless niceness would be a bore, especially when he’s surrounded by a prisonful of meanies – none meaner than the notorious Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the convict-cook who scowlingly serves up gruel to the inmates. (His mantra: “I don’t do nothing for nobody for nothin’!”) But there is something so supernally sweet about Paddington that he wins just about everybody over.
Making goodness as powerfully enticing as villainy is one of the most difficult feats for any dramatist – even Charles Dickens had trouble pulling it off. “Paddington 2” succeeds because it values decency so deeply that, in its own humble way, it evokes an entire philosophy of life. Decency, or at the least the expectation of it, imbues everything that we see. There’s nothing cute or Disneyish about the anthropomorphism in this film. Paddington, with his great kindnesses, is accepted by almost all the humans in his multicultural Windsor Gardens neighborhood as if he himself were human; he is looked up to by them, and his incarceration becomes a blight that must be remedied if the world is to once again be set aright.
In the course of righting wrongs, Paddington is caught up in some first-rate action sequences, including a prison break and a steam-engine chase. King tosses in all sorts of in-jokes, such as a quick tribute to the famous scene in “Modern Times” in which Charlie is whirlingly enmeshed in machinery, and it all works even if you don’t know the Chaplin film. The imagery all by itself is funny.
A movie that promotes the importance of family and good manners might seem like it could become the squarest of snoozes, but “Paddington 2” is so transcendentally cheerful that it carries the day – and then some. It made me want to go right out and buy a big jar of marmalade. Grade: A- (Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor.)