About twenty minutes in to Paddington 2, the titular bear, falsely imprisoned for theft, stares into a jailhouse washing machine to find a red sock floating among black and white striped uniforms. “What’s the worst that can happen,” Paddington asks himself as the camera pulls back from the bear’s face, through the tumbling clothes before cutting to a shot of cartoonishly hardened prisoners adorned in pink and grey.
It’s a delightful moment in a thoroughly delightful movie. Director Paul King fills the film with scenes in which Paddington’s good-natured bumbling transforms a something bleak into something magical, making good use of Cinematographer Erik Wilson’s meandering camera. Exposition and fantasy scenes become exercises in style as characters turn into sketch cartoons swimming to France or figures ambling through a pop-book version of London or fancy diners in a prison canteen, all set to Dario Marianelli’s spritely score.
Once again, Ben Wishaw voices the title character with a mixture of childlike curiosity and warm politeness, keeping in tone with Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins who – alongside Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin, and Julie Walters – return as the Browns, Paddington’s adopted middle-class family. Of the new additions to the cast, Hugh Grant gets the showiest part, playing a conceited actor with more devious disguises than Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events. But it’s the prison characters who add the most flavor, particularly Brendan Gleeson as the gruff cook Nuckel’s and, in a smaller part, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the avuncular (but firm) Warden Walker.
King uses his ensemble cast to great effect, not only showing the caring communities Paddington creates around him, but also finding wonderful little character moments. A simple visiting hours chat between Paddington’s family and his new jailbird buddies gives King and Wilson opportunity to construct one of the most delightfully silly tableaus I’ve ever seen outside of a Muppet movie.
When its final act moves attention away from community-building, the movie drags a bit, never able to fully meld its tone to its caper plot. Worse, character arcs set up for the family – Mrs. Brown wants to swim, Jonathan Brown is embarrassed of his love of steam trains – pay off in a rudimentary manner that reveals them to be more straight character lines, making the movie feel a bit too overstuffed.
But the movie’s just so darn delightful that we quickly forgive and forget this minor annoyance. From its visuals to its plot, Paddington 2 is a testament to the motto our hero learns from his Aunt Lucy: “If we’re kind and polite the world will be right.” And it’s hard to get more right than a marmalade loving bear in a slicker.