There’s a moment of “mild peril” in Paddington 2 that sweeps the franchise firmly into its PG rating with a sense of earned sincerity and genuine danger that has become rare in the type of family friendly adventure fare we usually see on the big screen come Christmas time.
As with the first absolutely charming entry into the franchise, British icon Paddington Bear finds himself in danger during the last minutes of the third act, and the effect is devastating. In a packed cinema, several soft cries of children could be heard, accompanied by the gentle soothing of parents and guardians, fully aware of the narrative tropes, assuring their children that everything was going to be alright.
A swell of intense worry and relief was felt throughout the audience, the type of feeling usually reserved for the most well-crafted of action or thriller films, yet director Paul King achieves this with a CGI bear. Leaving the multiplex misty eyed and smiling, I could only think of how many kids Paddington 2 will teach to love cinema.
Featuring a Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Grant giving his best comedic performance in years, this instalment sees Paddington finding the perfect birthday present for his Retirement Home for Bears bound Aunt Lucy, only to have it rudely stolen by washed up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Grant). Though Nicole Kidman’s villainous turn in the first film derived surprising humour from her pairing with soon to be ex-Doctor Peter Capaldi, the casting of Hugh Grant is a stroke of genius that transforms Paddington 2 into a near perfect tribute to British cinema.
Less a direct comment on Grant’s role as Richard Curtis’ muse, Buchanan is a perfect meta-commentary on middle-class luvvies who became awfully good at one particular thing, only to have their fame and success teetering when their age caught up with them and their eye for good roles became a little less sharp. With riffs on Split and A Series of Unfortunate Events, Buchanan is an ingenious twist on the master of disguise villain convention, an actor who has become deranged with the multiple personalities of his former roles.
The master plan is suitably ludicrous enough to see Paddington engage in numerous scenes of slapstick humour, masterfully crafted considering the limitations a CG construction creates, and dry wit that the voice of Paddington, Ben Whishaw, is perfect for. There’s a danger in family films, pressured to appeal to both adults and children, for the more mature jokes to consist largely of innuendo, double entendre and thinly veiled visual sex jokes, but writers King and Simon Farnaby (who reprises his role from the first film in maybe the funniest scene) are aware that the likes of Aardman have perfected this art.
Instead of crude attempts to shock the parents into snorting, Paddington 2 is packed to bursting with social commentary, physical gags, politics, mid-life crises, punctuation and grammar, surrealism and subversion. The best moments happen during the film’s second act, after Paddington has been framed and mistakenly sent to a prison that, thanks to Paddington’s presence, quickly turns from the prison in The Grand Budapest Hotel to, well, The Grand Budapest Hotel itself. Borrowing Wes Anderson’s symmetry, trolley shots and colour palette, the referencing may be overt, but the story beats and humour are fresh and consistently succeed in squeezing out multiple laughs each take.
A couple of moments of lazy green screen work and stiff action prevent the final set piece from polishing the movie into kinetic perfection, but the pay-off is resound and the writing retains its charm and consistent laughs all the way to the final moments. Though Star Wars will have final say in December, Paddington 2 is surely the perfect Christmas movie to see this year, certain to melt the frosty residue of Justice League, lift the spirits from the dour atmosphere of Murder on the Orient Express and provide the enthusiastic chuckles that Daddy’s Home 2 and A Bad Mom’s Christmas certainly won’t.
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