If you missed “Paddington” three years ago, you missed one of the most thoroughly delightful children’s movies in recent memory, about an anthropomorphic Peruvian bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) who comes to live with a human family in London. Based on Michael Bond’s beloved books (which date back to 1958) and written and directed by Paul King (director of “The Mighty Boosh”), “Paddington” fell into the sweet spot of movies meant for kids that work so well on adults that we suspect they were actually made for us.
“Paddington 2,” with King and the cast returning, is nearly as delightful as its predecessor, with effortless charm, well-choreographed humor, and a magnanimous spirit. When bad or scary things happen, the characters react to them gently, unhysterically, so as not to worry the little ones. Paddington gets sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit — scary! — but he immediately befriends everyone and turns the place into a civilized utopia. Politeness and manners win the day every time.
The story concerns Paddington’s efforts to find a birthday present for his dear Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton), who lives at the Home for Retired Bears back in Peru. Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), the antiques dealer, has a rare pop-up book about the landmarks of London that would be perfect — Aunt Lucy has always wanted to see London — and Paddington takes up odd jobs to raise the money to buy it, supported, as always, by his adoptive family, the Browns.
Down the street lives Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a washed-up stage actor reduced to doing dog food commercials who believes the pop-up book has clues to a hidden treasure, which he needs to finance his career-reviving one-man show. A master of disguise who talks to costumed mannequins of Hamlet, Macbeth, etc., in his attic, Phoenix steals the book from Mr. Gruber, frames Paddington for the theft, and hustles around town looking for the clues.
It’s Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) who figures out that Phoenix Buchanan is the culprit, and her husband (Hugh Bonneville) is quickly convinced as well. (I’m always pleased when the “one person knows the truth but no one will believe them” phase of the plot is minimized.) While they set out to clear Paddington’s name, the bear himself is helping the prison chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), revise the menu to include marmalade and other inmate suggestions. (Tattooed across Knuckles’ knuckles: “N-U-C-K”; “E-L-‘-S.”) Back in the Browns’ neighborhood, everyone whose life had been improved by Paddington feels his absence.
The key to both films’ success is that King casts committed actors who take their work seriously. You can tell when the performers in a talking-animal movie are phoning it in and when they’re giving it the same legitimacy as their more “important” roles. Hugh Grant’s hammy actor-turned-scoundrel is a hilarious villain, and the scene where Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins sneak around his house looking for evidence is a work of admirable silliness — but all three are dead earnest about making their characters believable within the reality established by the movie. Ben Whishaw’s work is important as well, bringing Paddington to life with only his voice.
Strangely, the two Brown teenagers, Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), are wedged into the story without being given much to do, a clumsy misstep in an otherwise well-structured movie. Judy has found an old printing press and started her own newspaper; Jonathan is into trains but fears it’s a nerdy hobby. Both elements factor into things eventually, but only in a cursory, checklist kind of way.
And now that I’ve said that, I’m worried Paddington will accuse me of having forgotten my manners. Quibbles aside, this is sincere, top-notch family entertainment that appeals to children and grownups without pandering to either demographic. I don’t say this often, but if you see “Paddington” or “Paddington 2” and don’t like it, there’s something wrong with you.
B+ (1 hr., 43 min.; )