“Bears always fall on their feet.” So goes a running punchline in Michael Bond’s series of “Paddington” books, and so it proves in the second big-screen outing for one of Britain’s two most beloved literary bears — the one that subsists on marmalade rather than honey. Having already aced a challenging cinematic transition in his bright-eyed 2014 film debut, the plucky, duffel-coated furball now breezily defies the law of diminishing returns. Conceived once more with bounding wit, kindness and visual imagination by writer-director Paul King, “Paddington 2” is another near-pawfect family entertainment, honoring the cozy, can-do spirit of Bond’s stories while bringing them smoothly into a bustling, diverse 21st-century London — with space for some light anti-Brexit subtext to boot.
Roaring box office awaits when “Paddington 2” hits U.K. screens on November 10; with the film, initially set to be distributed Stateside by The Weinstein Company property, now seeking an alternative home, one hopes further happy landings await the critter. Though the first film wound up grossing over $190 million worldwide, King and super-producer David Heyman still know which side their bread is buttered and slathered with the sticky orange stuff. “Paddington 2” remains a resolutely British creation, its antics bouncing from Victorian steam fairs to the futuristic glass planes of London’s Shard skyscraper, and suffused with a thoroughly indigenous spirit of japery — equal parts pantomime, music hall and Ealing comedy. All that, and Hugh Grant too: Succeeding Nicole Kidman on dastardly villain duty, the never-Limier thesp’s shriekingly funny self-parody very nearly knocks our ursine hero into a cocked, famously shapeless hat.
The film begins, much like the first, by plunging through the clouds into the Peruvian jungle, detailing more of the Paddington’s lively pre-London backstory, before perkily picking up the present-day narrative where its predecessor left off. We find the bear (again voiced by Ben Whishaw with an ideal combination of gentleness and gumption) happily ensconced in the cheery Notting Hill abode of the Brown family (again adorkably headed by Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville). He’s now a neighborhood fixture, seemingly beloved by all except sneering, hostile neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), now cannily presented as the embodiment of resurgent anti-immigrant invective in Britain’s population and politics, though he’s pointedly never given much time to darken the mood.
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So far, so fab, as the film proceeds at a pace that can only be reached in comfortably broken-in sneakers. King stacks up a handful of immaculately executed slapstick sequences — including, most blissfully, one involving a barbershop, rogue hair clippers and a dozing Tom Conti — that devotedly work stray vignettes from the books into a larger overriding adventure. (Bond, who passed away in June, gets a sweet, prominent dedication in the credits.)
But just as concerns briefly surface that “Paddington 2,” for all its jollity, might be as complacently uninventive as its title, King allays fears with a genuine, plot-firing coup de cinéma. Courtesy of kindly antique dealer Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), a well-worn pop-up book of London landmarks comes soaringly, dazzlingly to life, buffeting the young bear through its flicking one-dimensional streetscapes like a pencil-sketched “Inception” — a triumph of effects and the extravagant vision of production designer Gary Williamson. (It’s also a nifty, hi-tech tribute to the BBC’s collage-style “Paddington” TV sketches of the 1970s; at every turn, however elaborately they diverge from their source, King’s films remain generous acts of fan service.)
Rather than mere decoration, the picture book turns out to be the film’s key McGuffin. Coveted by Paddington as a birthday present for his dear Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton), it’s also desired, for rather less ingenuous reasons, by Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a preening, acclaimed classical actor lately relegated to dog-food commercials. (The one ad we’re treated to, giving us a mutt-costumed Grant with a rich Gielgud trill, is the most priceless of the film’s many throwaway gags.) When Buchanan breaks into Gruber’s shop to steal the volume, Paddington gives breakneck chase, astride a trusty Irish wolfhound, only to somehow land in prison, himself suspected of the theft.
Just go with it: King, previously best known for absurdist comedy series “The Mighty Boosh,” has made such flighty, ramshackle plotting a winning feature of the new-model Paddington. Why wouldn’t the beguiling bear, en route to a pleasingly old-school jailbreak, convince crusty convict cook Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson, being the best possible sport) to convert the prison canteen into an Olde English tea room? Why shouldn’t Buchanan’s treasure-hunting quest entail donning nun drag and scaling the heights of St. Paul’s Cathedral — particularly when Grant is committing this heartily to the cause? And if the scrambling action climax seems unfeasibly complicated, spanning not one but two speeding vintage steam trains on parallel tracks, well, why not? All the world’s a caper in “Paddington 2,” and the film channels its own hero’s fidgety, eager-to-please escapade addiction.
What’s remarkable, given the doubled-down hyperactivity and density of plotting in King and Simon Farnaby’s script, is how much of a tender emotional throughline it retains. Though kept apart for much of the running time, the Browns remain an unconventional family unit to root for, invaluably anchored by the goofy human warmth of Hawkins and Bonneville; their affinity with Paddington, meanwhile, is further abetted by the seamless digital integration of a talking bear into a live-action London jam-packed with even stranger diversions. (Only in the ambitious train sequence does the effects work reveal some cracks, and even then, the odd flash of blatant green-screen seems natural to the homey charm of proceedings.)
Even at its silliest intervals, the film’s never-mawkish message is on point: that home may be where the heart is, but not everyone’s home can stay in the same place. In its open-hearted advocacy of cultural acceptance and accommodation, “Paddington 2” may just be the film a brittle, bothered Britain needs right now. Pratfalls, Chaplin homages, and Hugh Grant crooning Sondheim in pink flares? Well, that’s just marmalade-flavored gravy.