'Paddington 2' ***1/2
Could it be that Hugh Grant was born to play a villainous dandy in a kid's movie? He certainly seems to be having the time of his life hamming it up in “Paddington 2” as a pretentious, has-been actor who's now relegated to dressing up like a spaniel for dog food commercials. His delight is contagious.
The family-friendly sequel to the 2014 film about a talking bear cub – already a monster hit in England, as well as a BAFTA nominee for best British movie – is a charmer from its first action-packed frames to its over-the-top jailhouse-musical scene during the end credits.
The heart of the movie, directed by Paul King, is once again the title character (voiced by Ben Whishaw): an exceedingly polite but flamboyantly clumsy talking bear from Peru who now lives full-time in London with the Brown family. He has won over just about everyone within a one-mile radius – with the exception of a nosy neighbor (Peter Capaldi), who might as well be called Mr. Brexit for his suspicious view of outsiders – palling around with the garbage collector, random bike commuters and the local antiques dealer, Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent).
It's at Gruber's oddities shop that the story gets started, as Paddington comes across a gorgeous pop-up book that he wants to buy for his beloved Aunt Lucy – the bear who raised him, voiced by Imelda Staunton – for her 100th birthday. The only problem is the unaffordable price. Paddington starts picking up odd jobs to save up, but before he can purchase the one-of-a-kind present, the devious Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) swoops in and steals the treasure from the store, for mysterious reasons.
That's bad enough, but it gets worse: The police collar Paddington for the crime and send him to prison. Brown family matriarch Mary (Sally Hawkins) sets about trying to prove her adopted son's innocence. In the meantime, the furry marmalade addict has to learn to make it alone behind bars.
It's not going to be easy. “Mrs. Brown usually reads me a story before bed,” Paddington tells the warden, earnestly, while being escorted to his cell.
As you can imagine, the other inmates aren't easily won over by Paddington's favorite adages – “If we're kind and polite, the world will be right,” he promises – but even they can't resist his adorable mug. Soon, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the most fearsome of criminals, has come around.
Gleeson, like Grant, does sublimely silly work here, although the latter remains the main attraction, thanks in part to his costumed alter egos – which include a seductive nun – and his lengthy conversations with mannequins dressed up as famous fictional characters. (The actor was singled out by the BAFTAs with a best-supporting-actor nomination.)
As with the first installment, based on Michael Bond's series of children's books, the sequel is stunning to look at, with inventive, colorful sets and such crafty interludes as a sequence in which Paddington imagines himself and his Aunt Lucy frolicking through the pages of the elusive pop-up book.
“Paddington 2” leans a little heavily on its simplistic message: There's good in everyone. Still, that's worth remembering during these divisive times. Maybe all it needs is a lovable bear to drive the point home.