Paddington 2

Sally Hawkins may be winning accolades for her performance in The Shape of Water, though I imagine her work in Paddington 2 (which is also currently playing in wide release) was no less challenging. In both films, Hawkins is called upon to convey an intimate, loving relationship with a nonhuman character and sustain the illusion that an imaginary creation exists in the real world. It’s even possible that the challenge of acting in Paddington 2 was greater than that of acting in Water: whereas the Amphibian Man of the later film was played by an actor in a costume—thereby giving Hawkins someone to act with and react to on set—the title character of Paddington 2 was created largely in post-production with digital effects. (There may have been an actor on set to fill in for Paddington, but I can assume that he looked nothing like the little bear that audiences know and love.) Hawkins and her costars not only sustain the illusion of making Paddington seem real, they make it look easy. In nearly every scene he’s in, the talking bear makes an emotional impact on the human characters around him, and the cast succeeds in making that impact relatable.

The actors also achieve a uniform tone that places them on the same emotional plane as Paddington. The characters resemble the sorts of people one finds in picture books; with the exception of the two villains (who are not without their charms), everyone is likable and easy to read emotionally. One relates to the human figures much like Paddington does—raised to see the good in everyone, the bear approaches people with goodwill and curiosity, and the filmmakers encourage viewers to follow suit. This is true even when Paddington goes to prison—having been framed by a devious actor for stealing a rare pop-up book—and ingratiates himself with the other prisoners. The bear instills the inmates with his love of marmalade, even winning over the rough-and-tumble prison chef (Brendan Gleeson). In one of the movie’s more inspired gags, Paddington inspires multiple prisoners to share their favorite baking recipes, and in no time, the prison cafeteria is filled with decadent desserts.

Such moments might come across as cloying if directed with a heavy hand, yet Paul King (who also directed the first Paddington film) maintains a light touch that’s all the more remarkable given the extent to which his work was mediated by the visual effects team. Like its predecessor, Paddington 2 moves fluidly from one episode to the next, with intricately connected plot points that combine to suggest a giant Rube Goldberg contraption. Consider the film’s climax, in which the bear (having broken out of prison in another imaginatively designed sequence) and his adopted human family attempt to apprehend the evil actor on top of a moving train. King (who wrote the script with Simon Farnaby) draws on minor details from earlier on in the film, showing how the characters’ hobbies, first presented as throw-away gags, prove useful in catching the villain. The visual compositions are no less resourceful than the plotting; throughout Paddington 2, there’s always something to grab one’s attention on the sides of the wide-screen frame, and the dense imagery heightens one’s curiosity.

Hugh Grant in Paddington 2

Playing the actor-villain Phoenix Buchanan, Hugh Grant gives a marvelously hammy performance that reminded me of Ronald Colman in George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947). Phoenix loves to act yet hates working with other people, and as a result, his career has hit bottom. He believes he can strike it rich by finding a hidden treasure, the location of which is hinted at in the pages of the purloined pop-up book. The clues in the book take Phoenix all over London in search of more information, and in each location he dons a different disguise. In his vanity, single-mindedness, and penchant for playing dress-up, he registers as more cartoonish than the title character, who is not only voiced movingly by Ben Whishaw, but animated to convey a wide range of emotions.

One sympathizes readily with Paddington, in part because he’s so willing to sympathize with others. The Paddington films preach a message of acceptance that’s no less straightforward than that of The Shape of Water, encouraging viewers to share in the hero’s tolerant worldview. Yet King and his collaborators deliver this message far more gracefully, I believe, than Guillermo del Toro and his collaborators do. Paddington 2 simply presents it as a given that prisoners can be reformed and that immigrants benefit British society—there’s never a sense of moralizing. That the cast is uniformly winning only adds to the spirit of bonhomie.