Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear stories are endearingly small in scale, so it was quite a gamble when David Heyman, the producer of the “Harry Potter” series, decided that they should be the basis of an action-packed, megabudget franchise. It turned out, though, that he knew what he was doing: “Paddington” was a beloved hit in 2015, and the superior sequel is bound to be even more lucrative.
Once again directed by Paul King, and co-written by King and Simon Farnaby, “Paddington 2” is a sure-footed, sweet-natured family comedy which isn’t set at Christmas, but which glows with so much warmth and fun that it might well be a staple of festive television for years to come. (The film has just opened in the United Kingdom; the North American rights are currently held by The Weinstein Company, but Heyman is looking for another distributor.)
One obvious way that it improves on its predecessor is in its choice of villain. The first film introduced an ursine hero who was pretty close to the one in Bond’s books. Endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw and exquisitely computer-generated, he was a mild-mannered, duffle-coated innocent, who had no superpowers or special abilities except his withering hard stare. And yet he was up against a murderous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman), who was intent on putting his skin on display in a museum. She seemed to have strutted in from a different film altogether. Fortunately, “Paddington 2” is less likely to give young viewers nightmares.
Its antagonist is a vain, past-it thespian, Phoenix Buchanan, played with delightfully self-parodying foppishness by Hugh Grant. Buchanan dreams of staging a one-man show in the West End, and his complicated fund-raising plans — which would have been at home in an Ealing comedy — involve stealing a vintage pop-up book from the antique shop owned by Paddington’s friend Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent).
Alas, thanks to a bad case of mistaken identity, it is Paddington who is led away in handcuffs (or rather, paw-cuffs), and sentenced to 10 years in prison. And while that may sound like cruel and unusual punishment, the screenplay provides a witty reason for the judge’s harshness.
From here on, King’s perfectly paced, joke-filled caper cuts back and forth between two parallel plots. One strand puts Paddington’s adoptive family, the Browns (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, et al), on the trail of Buchanan, a master of disguise who is spotted around London in a tramp’s rags, a nun’s habit and a suit of armour. Behind bars, meanwhile, Paddington has to win over a fearsome fellow inmate, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), with his marmalade sandwiches and his naive politeness.
It’s this unwavering courtesy which gives the film its central theme. Paddington is presented as the furry offspring of Amélie and Forrest Gump, someone so habitually decent that he makes the world a better place simply by being in it. Before he is arrested, the film establishes that his neighbors (played by Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller and others) would be as lost without his small acts of kindness as the townsfolk in “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be without James Stewart’s George Bailey.
Children will rightly chortle at Paddington’s clumsiness: when he works as a hairdresser and as a window cleaner, his elaborate mishaps are worthy of Laurel and Hardy. But adults may well shed a tear at the film’s sincere celebration of selflessness and community. Only the grumpy Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) holds out against Paddington’s benevolence, and he’s quite the explicit caricature of an anti-immigration Brexit voter.
Not that King sticks with real-world politics for long. Both of his “Paddington” films are proudly artificial in a manner reminiscent of Michel Gondry, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Wes Anderson, so that even when our hero is in trouble, we’re never far from the transporting comfort of a gorgeous fantasy sequence, an upbeat musical interlude or an array of pastel colors. Production designer Gary Williamson (“Submarine”) and animation director Pablo Grillo (“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) are crucial to the film’s magical feel.
Purists may quibble that this magical feel doesn’t have much to do with Bond’s original stories. Bond, who died in July at the age of 91, set them in a recognizable contemporary London, with much of the humor arose from the clash between something as exotic as a talking bear and something as ordinary as a department-store security guard. In contrast, King’s big-screen London is a quaint fantasy city, twinkling with fairy lights and dotted with steam trains and ancient printing presses.
Considering that “Paddington 2” is so beguiling, it may seem churlish to object to these embellishments. But it’s a slight shame that King didn’t become a bankable director a decade or so earlier. That way, he could have made a Harry Potter film and adapted a British children’s book that was better suited to his own whimsical, retro sensibilities.