He may be its biggest-name star, but when Hugh Grant showed up early in Paddington 2, upending the movie with heaping mouthfuls of witty nonsense, the moment had little impact in my crowded New York City theater. From this otherwise very vocal crowd, there was only one reaction: an unimpressed kid loudly proclaiming, “I don’t know who that is.”
Er, right. Kids don’t care about Hugh Grant—yet. They’re here for the bear. But maybe now’s their chance to get acquainted. In Paddington 2, Grant—still as delightfully mock-dry and comedically sharp as ever—plays Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor who used to be a big star but now shoots high-end dog food commercials in a canine costume so extravagant he’d be a shoo-in for prom king at a furry convention. Buchanan is technically the bad guy of Paddington 2: His machinations are the reason Paddington—that lovable brown bear from London by way of Peru—lands in jail, stuck with an excessive 10-year sentence for grand theft and grievous barberly harm (trust me, the joke makes sense in context). Maybe that sounds far-fetched for someone so guileless and cute as our titular bear, but if there’s anything the classic comic setups of the Paddington franchise teach us, it’s that one of the surest ways to be wrong is to try very hard at being right.
Like its 2015 predecessor, Paddington 2 is a lovingly clever, charming, lightweight tribute to the world of the late Michael Bond’s 150-strong, marmalade-rich series of children’s books. Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, and Jim Broadbent are all back to help fill out a world in which the ever-polite Paddington (adoringly voiced by Ben Whishaw) gets to start each day by greeting everyone he knows and loves and bringing light to their lives. That includes the Brown family, who took Paddington in after his Aunt Lucy sent him to London for a better life, as well as all their Windsor Gardens neighbors, like the curmudgeonly colonel who can’t see the sunshine for all the grime on his windows. It’s a pointedly diverse collection of people, spelling out, with deft affection, the movie’s central theme: “Love thy neighbor.” Even calling a well-kept louse like Phoenix Buchanan a “bad guy” slightly overdoes it. In Paddington’s world, there aren’t bad people, just unfortunate souls whose hearts Paddington hasn’t yet melted. All in due time.
Every children’s story wears its moral virtue on its sleeve, and Paddington 2 is no different, though as directed by Paul King (and cowritten by King and Simon Farnaby), it’s in many ways better than the norm. Paddington, forever indebted to his Aunt Lucy, whose life lessons he recites at seemingly every moral juncture in his life, has got his eye on the perfect gift for her upcoming birthday. It’s an illustrated pop-up book displaying 11 great landmarks from the city of London, Aunt Lucy’s dream city. It’s an antique, too—meaning it’s very expensive. It was once the property of the great Madame Kozlova, a circus performer who was murdered long ago for her money. Paddington can’t afford the book offhand; he has, at most, a coin to his name. So he works for it—or tries to. In classic Paddington fashion, every attempt to do good ends in joyous farce, from a barbershop stint that ends with him having to glue a man’s hair back on with marmalade, to a window-washing mishap straight out of the Buster Keaton playbook.
Picture all of this in the context of contemporary Britain and you can see where the movie’s heart is. Paddington, whose difference from everyone else is both undeniable and pointedly unremarked upon, is the hardworking, bighearted outsider who’s managed to become an essential part of his community. Hence the irony of a local patrolman calling him an “undesirable,” making him out to be an unwanted menace and rallying to get the good people of Windsor Gardens to agree. When the pop-up book that Paddington’s been working hard to purchase gets stolen from the antique shop and he’s wrongly sent to prison over the crime, it only seems to confirm the worst opinions of the bigot. It also draws people together, both inside the prison, where Paddington wins everyone over with marmalade sandwiches and good cheer (his first act is to propose he and another prisoner start a gardening club), and outside, where the Browns and others try to find the real thief and clear Paddington’s good name. That all tumbles out in a series of comical adventures that somehow manage to be both zany and, in a distinctly British way, abundantly polite.
It’s a fun movie, within which lurks a poignant idea—and, yes, an oversimple one—about communities and their outsiders. Paddington, with his big brown eyes and iconic red cap, blue duffle coat, and bottomless suitcase, is a model of neighborly spirit. And he has a knack for remaking every new environment in his own image, down to the prison, which, thanks to him, ceases being a place of violence and intimidation and becomes a place of cooperation and love. (Only a “Prison Sweet Prison” banner spoils it—prison is prison, marmalade sandwiches or not.) Paddington 2 makes a point of having Paddington win you over, knowing fully well you were already predisposed to love him. Its confidence in sympathy and good manners saving the day and undoing the course of injustice is what makes it a kids’ movie. But what makes it appealing, no matter who you are, are the light comic touches undergirding it all, from Grant’s wittily egotistical conversations to himself in the mirror, to all the old-school visual comedy, like Paddington slinking upward through the gears of a huge clock, silent-movie style, to escape prison.
The movie is a fun reminder that the spirits of innovators like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, mixed in with heavy doses of Wes Anderson, Amélie, and other models of whimsy, are still alive, doled out to kids in favor of the high-flying, bombastic bullcrap being dredged up every year to satisfy adults. It’s a reminder, too, that moral lessons are often most convincing when pared down to their essentials and spoon-fed to children. The driving engine of Paddington 2 isn’t plot: It’s empathy. On that subject, I wager many of the parents in the audience need a refresher. Paddington 2 may be a fun time for kids, but its real wisdom, in the end, is in what it has to say to adults.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated one of the charges that had landed Paddington in jail; it was grievous barberly harm, not bodily harm.