Paddington 2’s final five minutes are as moving as any film scene in 2017, not only culminating an utterly lovely adventure story, but also extolling the virtues of kind, tolerant togetherness with the sort of shameless sincerity that only family films really ever dare reach for. It’s incredibly touching, and a perfect example of why this sequel to Paul King’s surprise smash-hit 2014 adaptation of Michael Bond’s Paddington books is exactly the film that 2017 Britain needs. It’s an obviously political and utopian vision of the UK that happens to be wrapped up in a caper starring a small CG bear.
Once again taking place in King’s eclectic version of London – steampunk technology and Victorian prisons mixing seamlessly with modern landmarks like The Shard – we’re reintroduced to Paddington Bear (Ben Whishaw) as he hunts for the perfect birthday present for his Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton). In the first of many scenes of extraordinary visual imagination, Paddington finds this gift in Mr Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique store, an old pop-up book of London landmarks. Paddington and Lucy, flawless and weighty CG creations, are dropped into the lo-fi paper world to explore, one of the most memorable effects sequences of the year.
Unfortunately for Paddington, villainous and washed up thesp and master of disguise Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) also has his eyes on the book. Thanks to the secret clues hidden within its pages, it’s exceedingly valuable and will allow Buchanan to put on his one-man show and stop starring in dog food ads. Grant is on absolutely phenomenal form here, a mix of self parody and genuine (if campy) menace, and you can’t take your eyes off his wildly energetic performance. His scheming and thieving eventually gets Paddington imprisoned, which is hugely entertaining in its own right, but also helps cements King and co-writer Simon Farnaby’s message of society’s wrongful mistrust of immigrants.
To try and buy the book, Paddington has been working a series of odd jobs, winning friends all across his neighbourhood as a result of his kindness and politeness. They all know him well, but Paddington’s arrest and the work of xenophobic Mr Curry (Peter Capaldi, essentially playing Brexit) sow seeds of doubt among everyone but Paddington’s adoptive family, the Browns. Though the family members still get moments to shine, whether it’s Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) reminiscing about his days as a coconut shy hotshot or Mrs Brown (Sally Hawkins) thinking up increasingly mad conspiracy theories, the show is stolen by Grant and fellow series newcomer Brendan Gleeson.
Gleeson plays the prison’s chef and resident hardman, the perfectly named Knuckles McGinty. Initially hostile to the naïve Paddington, he’s soon won over by a combination of earnestness and delicious marmalade sandwiches. It’s loads of fun watching them grow into firm friends and give the prison a sugary makeover to the point that it resembles something straight out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Eventually, they orchestrate a breakout in an inspired sequence stacked with visual imagination and superb choreography.
It’s one of quite a few set-pieces in this sequel, but by far the standout, particularly as it’s one that doesn’t feel like a revisit of the best of the original. Paddington 2 can sometimes feel like it’s repeating its predecessor, with some of the slapstick, especially in the first third, overly familiar. That’s not to say these scenes aren’t funny, and there are plenty of spectacular jokes in King and Farnaby’s script, but, in lacking the freshness of the first, the laughs aren’t quite as rapid and hearty. This is a minor quibble though, and the film is populated with a selection of hilarious cameos that, without fail, raise your spirits.
This uplift, from laughs and plenty of other sources, is one of the movie’s primary goals, and you’d have to be made of stone to resist it. It’s a barnstorming all-ages adventure with pro-immigration and pro-Europe political stances simultaneously understated and all-encompassing. You’ll be glued to seat as if Paddington himself had stuck you there with some especially gooey marmalade, which is just as well – you simply have to stay around for the credits. British film hasn’t really had a defining family franchise since Harry Potter ended but if the world of Paddington ends up as our Next Big Thing, we can count ourselves very lucky.