The contemporary blockbuster talks a good game about compassion and mercy, but it still mostly panders to our bloodlust and rage. One reason to go to the movies is to unwind, sure, but we also want to indulge in fantasy and wish fulfillment, often about getting even — and woe unto the movie that denies us such simple, petty pleasures. Which is why in today’s studio firmament — even among that softer genre of family-friendly fare — the Paddington films stand out. Both 2015’s Paddington and this year's Paddington 2 sequel embody a kind of extreme empathy. They have their moments of spectacle — laugh-out-loud sight gags and genuinely exciting set pieces — but they’re also dominated by an overwhelming sense of kindness. They make us yearn to be better humans rather than badder badasses, and in today’s world, that feels downright radical.
The first film, based on the late Michael Bond’s classic tales about a talking, marmalade-obsessed bear from “darkest Peru” who travels to London after his jungle habitat is destroyed, showed us Paddington’s adoption by the kindly and chaotic Brown family, led by risk analyst dad Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and free-spirited children’s-book artist mom Mary (Sally Hawkins). While the Browns tried to figure out what to do with the klutzy fur ball, the film also referenced England’s historical welcoming of European refugee children during World War II (reportedly, one of Bond’s initial inspirations for Paddington); the movie thus worked as a subtle comment on the country’s contemporary political debate about immigrants.
Now, one Brexit later, the series feels even more political. Paddington Bear is, of course, one of the U.K.’s most enduring symbols for itself; it’s good to be reminded that he also stands for the welcoming of the outsider, the downtrodden, the displaced. In Paddington 2, the emigre bear (again voiced by Ben Whishaw) appears to be the glue holding the Browns’ diverse, colorful neighborhood together. That’s much to the ire of self-appointed one-man neighborhood watch squad and England-firster Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), who warns everyone about opening their doors to Paddington and his kind.
The main plot follows Paddington becoming interested in a rare antique pop-up book about London to send to his Aunt Lucy, stuck back in the jungle, for her birthday. (She’d always wanted to come to the city, but her plans got derailed when she and her mate, Pastuzo, came upon the orphaned Paddington, a scene we see in flashback at the film’s opening.) While our ursine hero takes a variety of jobs in an attempt to raise funds, the tome gets stolen by self-obsessed has-been actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who apparently needs it to find a secret treasure. What’s worse, Paddington is arrested for the theft and winds up in prison. His first night behind bars, he asks the guard to read him a bedtime story, the way Mrs. Brown would. The guard refuses — but never fear, he’ll soon be reading nightly tales to all the inmates. The bear’s unflappable goodness has a way of transforming everyone around him; the homey comforts of marmalade sandwiches help, too.
Aside from being a disarming, refreshing wallow in kindness, Paddington 2 also has the benefit of being well constructed and exceedingly well performed. As evidenced in the first film, director Paul King knows his way around a comedic set piece — giving us just enough information to build anticipation for the big comic blowups. The movie’s elaborate slapstick creations build from both Paddington’s clumsiness and his desire to do good — to not hurt or offend people — which in turn makes them that much more engaging. The funniest part of the bear’s inevitably catastrophic attempt to become a barber is not what he does with one unfortunate fellow’s hair, it’s what he does to try and cover up his mistake.
Meanwhile, Grant takes the part of the shapeshifting and supernaturally narcissistic Buchanan to heavenly extremes. The result is a cross between Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Willem Dafoe in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man; watching a vainglorious actor speak, in different voices, to the various costumes of his storied past, is the kind of thing that could get annoying, but Grant so clearly enjoys the character’s preening theatricality that his energy and delight rub off on us. It’s enough to make me think we missed out on something all those years when the actor was doing his genial-Englishman shtick in romantic comedies; this is a guy who can go really big when he wants to, and Paddington 2 reminds us how good Grant can be. He’s the ham-encrusted jewel in this kindly marvel’s marmalade crown.