'Paddington 2' Review: A Great Sequel That Tops The Original In Every Way

Any film critic worth his or her salt will tell you that January is a pretty rough month for new releases. It's a month marked by high-profile films from the previous year expanding around the country as they aim to get awards attention. Rare is the January release that rises above the status of being forgettable. But rare too is the sequel that improves upon its predecessor, and yet, here we are with the North American release of the utterly delightful Paddington 2. Bringing together many of the key players from the delightful 2015 original, Paddington 2 doubles down on the previous film's many charms, introduces a cheeky new villain, and is thoroughly giddy fun.

Based on the stories by the late author Michael Bond, Paddington 2 begins with its marmalade-loving young hero (voiced earnestly by Ben Whishaw) in relative harmony in Windsor Gardens with his adoptive family, the Browns. Paddington's chief goal now is to get a suitably perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy's upcoming 100th birthday. Centenaries are special, he feels, and when he sees a detailed pop-up book of London at the local antique shop, Paddington knows it's the perfect gift and he decides to get a job to earn money to buy the book. Unfortunately for him, one of Paddington's new neighbors, faded theater actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), also wants the book for more devious aims; when he steals it incognito, Paddington is framed and sent to prison.

Sending Paddington to prison may seem like the kind of dark plot twist that only occurs when filmmakers want to up the dramatic ante in the second film of a series, a la The Empire Strikes Back. But never fear: director and co-writer Paul King have no interest in depicting the terrifying conditions of the English prison system. Instead, Paddington 2 keeps up the buoyant, daffy whimsy of the original, as our bear is able to charm just about every person who he meets, like gruff and nasty prison chef Nuckles McGinty (a very game Brendan Gleeson). After Paddington wins over Nuckles and the other prisoners with his famous marmalade sandwiches, he turns the mess hall into nothing less than one of the finest English tea shops. Just...y'know, in prison.

The action does not flag outside the prison, as King and co-writer Simon Farnaby put Mr. and Mrs. Brown into sleuthing mode, as they try to figure out who stole the pop-up book, before they realize that the various characters causing mayhem in their neighborhood — including a wayward nun, a common bum, and others — are all Buchanan in the stage disguises he's kept from his glory days. These sequences are as much as a chance for Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins to cut loose — as with the previous film, we get a brief flashback to Mr. Brown's looser, more carefree days, and it's a hoot — as they are for Hugh Grant to mock himself and his early self-image as an English heartthrob. (Buchanan surrounds himself with hallmarks of his past, including various headshots, which are all clearly real headshots of Grant in his twenties.) The few moments when Buchanan slips into different accents, everything from a Scottish brogue as Macbeth to a reedy French accent as Hercule Poirot, are among the finest the film has to offer. Grant, who appears in fewer films now than he used to, is the film's funniest secret weapon.

This, perhaps, speaks to the distinctive pleasures that Paddington 2 has to offer. Like the previous film, this movie neither condescends to the children in the audience nor to the parents who have accompanied them. There's plenty to laugh at in setpieces where, for example, Paddington tries his hand at being a barber (it does not go well), or at cleaning prison laundry (it, too, does not go well). There's also plenty of snappy visual flair and symmetry, suggesting that King is still taking inspiration from Wes Anderson, like when we see a picture-book-style look at the prison or the pop-up version of London that so enchants Paddington. Certainly, there are moments in the film that may lean a bit on treacle, but there are also newspaper-headline sight gags like "Dry Cleaner Guilty of Money Laundering; Deal to Be Ironed Out." One balances out the other.

Paddington 2 arrives in the States a few months after it opened in the United Kingdom, naturally, and there have already been whispers of a third film. Considering that the beloved bear was the subject of so many books, it's logical that he might come back again and again on the big screen, but movie sequels aren't often as good as what came before, let alone improvements. Paddington 2, like its hero, manages to surprise in its winning tone, its fierce cleverness, its heart, and its humor. This easily goes alongside other great sequels such as The Empire Strikes Back and Toy Story 2. 2018 has just begun, but the standards for the year's high-quality family films have just been lifted by this remarkable little film./Film Rating: 9 out of 10