“We all want to help one another. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery.” Paddington Bear’s dear Aunt Lucie could have said this. She believes that people want good from each other, and what’s more, that they’ll find it if they look. Paddington (and director Paul King, I suspect) get that from her. But she didn’t say it: Charlie Chaplin did. Paddington 2 salutes the Tramp in symbols at one point, when the chubby bear slides up by his smooshed belly fur through clock gears via Modern Times. He even hastily wipes off a grease-paint mustache if you didn’t get the gist. But the entire picture is a coming-home letter to Chaplin, in the way action and comedy become inseparable, in how the stillness of an innocent reaction is so much funnier than the outrage of a sarcastic one. The irreverent new frat-party Peter Rabbit flick could not have come into the world at a worse time: with the freshly laundered colors of a boundless imagination, the sincere Paddington 2 is as much good as I’ve seen from us in more than a few bear years.
“From deepest, darkest Peru,” the well-mannered bear comes to London, arriving at Paddington Station, looking for a family. The first Paddington was about the construction of this situation comedy, the mechanism of the “bear in the big city” plot. The sequel is better because it has no obligations: it lets the elements work their own magic. Paddington (impersonated by Ben Whishaw) is so at home in Waverly, London that people act like a bear in rain hat and overcoat is nothing to be surprised about. He makes “sticky situation” literal with that jar of orange marmalade he carries in his coat pocket. But if Paddington gets into antics, they’re all well-meaning. Mostly he “good mornings” everyone he meets, helps out when he can, and especially when he can’t, totally misses the function of sarcasm and tips his hat at the perfect times. No one in the world, on or off camera, not even the villain, looks down on Paddington. It’s a London that might not ever exist that he trots around in on his bear paws, one where people might say they’re “tickled the deepest shade of shrimp” and not raise any suspicions. But the well-mannered frivolity (to use Professor McGonagall’s phrase) tickled me just so.
The bromide that usually corrodes this kind of film is in those predictable antics jokes, that usually involve screaming, slow motion, or slow motion screaming. Paddington 2 crosses this threshold without Paddington’s wariness: it knows exactly how to balance verbal and physical comedy, how to freshen it in its often too predictable medium, and how to make jokes cross generations. For instance, Paddington, to afford enough money for Aunt Lucie’s birthday present (she’s turning 100 in bear years and it must be perfect), takes up a job as a window washer. In the process of doing so, following a wonderful skit with Paddington on a rope pulley tied to his soap bucket, the bear discovers that he, that is, his big furry body, is the best possible squeegee to get the job done right and quick. Paws, bum, and belly slide across the sudsy windows, the in-universe jazz band starts grooving, and Paddington is finally good at a job just because he’s fuzzy and rather plump.
Where was I? I lost my train of thought thinking about all that soapy earnestness. Oh yes. My point was that Paddington slides his tail along a sudsy window and it’s funny to anyone without being classifiable as twerking, that is, without being aware of itself. In this case, the obligatory window gag is quite reasonable really: it’s just the best way Paddington could think to clean the windows (and what difference does it really make anyway, if one has a perfectly good bum to use?). I understand that the Sony shysters would have preferred this character to be sassy in proportion to the sweetness of his upbringing. It’s a shame Heyday Films didn’t think of the obvious comedy gold: Paddington turning around on his sill and tossing bread slices like a banker at a strip club to a Taylor Swift song, or surprising everyone by dub-stepping at a London club like a cool kid, or force-feeding someone something they’re allergic to until they go into anaphylactic shock.
No! Aunt Lucie would condemn my obsession with putting other people in their place. The only thing she allows Paddington to do when someone is particularly ill-mannered is what he calls “a cold hard stare.” Excuse me while I do that to Sony’s Wikipedia page.
There, you see. And now I don’t need to berate anyone for anything. For I was once like Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), who believed that in the real world, “a good-mannered bear might get trampled.” But since Paul King and Heyday Films believed that a bear might not, if he was good-mannered enough, they made and released Paddington 2 not only without the vulgarity that seems to corrupt any property that just wants to have sandwiches and be nice to people, but without diluting it with irony. When Paddington goes to prison on accusations of theft, it’s a wonderland of Chaplin-esque setups: getting bullied by the gigantic soft-on-the-inside chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), teaching weathered criminals which fork is for cake, and escaping by clock-tower and hot air balloon. We’re too full of wonderment to make it back around to sarcasm, which is just cynicism in a more thoughtful form. In this film, not even Paddington's butt is the butt of a joke. When the bear heckles a vain man without meaning to, we find it easy to laugh at the man's vanity, which reminds us of our own, and never at Paddington, who reminds us awfully frequently of how we wish to be.
Most shocking of all this new information we’re getting telegraphed about Paul King (these Paddington films are his first major movies) is how deftly he choreographs action. Surely this wasn’t a requirement for adapting Michael Bond’s can-do bear, to be chased by train and streetcar, on dog-back and in the Thames. But King is so conscientious of space that action remains not only exciting but funny too. The train chase at the end is particularly like a silent film, in the way Paddington sneaks up on the bad guy (Hugh Grant) by fastening candy apples to his paws and walking across the ceiling, and escaping to the adjacent train with a tiny crank ladder that extends one slat at a time and bows over the gap, jostling its pudgy little bear-end over the side. It’s worthy of Buster Keaton, who knew as well as King that our eyes must always stay located within the action, for a set-piece like this to be funny: you can only laugh at things you can follow. King never lets us go.
The supporting cast supports the little bear every minute: Sally Hawkins soars as the pert Mary Brown, Paddington’s adoptive mother with swimming ambitions and a most sarcastic whisper. Bonneville knows how much Mr. Brown needs to hide his misgivings about the world around him behind his pride in his little part of it: he means well enough that we can forgive him for not acting on the belief that the world is better than he thinks it is. Jim Broadbent gracefully enters and exits as the nebulous antique store owner. And it should be repeated that Gleeson’s performance is in the greatest traditions of bountiful big men on-screen, hearkening to the Mack Sennett studio days, when Chaplin could have found a sparring partner in rowdy old Fatty Arbuckle to hilarious, and locomotive, effect. Everyone in Paddington 2 keeps moving. It never stops, until it’s good and ready.
And along the way, London itself is like a pop-up book of visual wonderment. When Paddington and his convict friends escape from prison, the view shifts and becomes positively Wes Anderson-esque, in two-dimensions, as though the bear is crawling through a doll’s house, dodging the view of silly guards in a stagey cabaret. When he opens the literal pop-up book, the camera soars into it and plants Paddington and his dear Aunt down among the cardboard coast and pop-up people. When he misses the jungle, his jail-cell sprouts foliage for him. There are no “dreams” in Paddington 2: these sequences continue in the real time of the film, as do the entrances of the random canonical jazz band that occasionally takes up Dario Marianelli’s lively score. Imagination is the film’s bread and marmalade. It lives on it, unflinchingly, never doubting the kind of well-mannered dreams it hopes to inspire with sequence on sequence of tactful whimsy.
With the kid’s films I’ve seen released over the last few years – Norm of the North, Minions, The Emoji Movie, Peter Rabbit – I am still rather like Mr. Brown in that I don’t fully understand how Paddington 2 can exist, untrampled, in this world of ours. It was not made but confected, like an icing rose, by people who take no pleasure from pain, who want only good from each other. Aunt Lucie would be so proud, just that they looked for such goodness. And anyone who sees this film could not help but walk from the theater humming a song whose tune they might have forgotten, but whose message is clear as crystal, and as sparkling: that with Paddington 2, they found it.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Paddington Brown||Ben Whishaw|
|Henry Brown||Hugh Bonneville|
|Mary Brown||Sally Hawkins|
|Phoenix Buchanan||Hugh Grant|
|Knuckles McGinty||Brendan Gleeson|
|Mrs. Bird||Julie Walters|
|Samuel Gruber||Jim Broadbent|