The first “Paddington” was quietly dropped in Jan. 2015, and as an animated film released during the first weeks of the new year, the smart bet was that it was going to be awful. A marketing campaign that fronted a story ripped from any number of “fish out of water” kid flicks did nothing to help. It came as a welcome, genuine surprise that, despite its predictable story, the movie itself was actually quite good. Each scene held an abundance of wit, charm and honest-to-God style that the whole thing played like your kid’s first Wes Anderson film. The only things missing were Bill Murray and chain smoking.
It was a victory against all odds, yet somehow director Paul King (“Bunny and the Bull”) and his cast and crew have found a way to outdo themselves. “Paddington 2” exceeds the first film in almost every way possible; from its unique style to its clever sense of humor, everything is stepped up. Still, at the core is the same beating heart that makes it so easy to fall in love with Paddington (Ben Whishaw, “Spectre”) and his surrogate family, the Browns. If the movie that introduced us to them was a great kid’s film, then its sequel is a great film, period.
Without a doubt, the greatest improvement made is the use of the human characters. Apart from the Browns — the parents portrayed gamely by Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) and Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) — the first film didn’t have much in this way besides Nicole Kidman (“Lion”) playing a villain who is never as funny or as lively as the film itself. “Paddington 2” has two characters who almost steal the show from Paddington himself.
The first is Hugh Grant (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) as Phoenix Buchanan, a former thespian who frames Paddington for a theft he himself committed. Buchanan’s series of increasingly ridiculous costumes and personas gives Grant the opportunity to ham it up, playing opposite himself in a nearly self-satirical role. This climaxes in the character’s final scene, which set an early high bar for hilarity in film this year. It’s worth noting that when “Paddington 2” was released in the United Kingdom late last year, Grant — as well as the script and the film itself — was nominated for the BAFTA Film Award for Best Supporting Actor. Now that it has been released in America, it’s easy to see why.
The other terrific addition is Brendan Gleeson (“Mr. Mercedes”) as Knuckles McGinty. Every scene Gleeson shares with Paddington is filled with the best jokes “Paddington 2” has to offer, from his reaction to Paddington shoving a marmalade sandwich into his mouth to the reveal that he misspelled his name — “Nuckle’s” — when tattooing it across his fists. Similar to the film itself, there’s a beating heart at Knuckles’s core, and the very real friendship that develops between the curmudgeonly prison chef and the titular bear is one of the movie’s greatest achievements.
And that heart, communicated beautifully through both the characters and a story that is significantly less by-the-numbers than the original, is what makes “Paddington 2” great. It verges on cliché to celebrate a children’s movie for simply being innocent and sweet, but innocence and sweetness are Paddington’s defining attributes. They are attributes that his movies — in between jokes and stylistic flourishes — implore audiences, young and old, to share. In a time when most films extoll those values without exhibiting them themselves, a film that actually walks the walk and walks it well should be celebrated.