Friday 24 November 2017

Bear hug: "Paddington 2"

This shouldn't have worked once, let alone twice over. Lest we forget, 2014's first Paddington arrived in the same year the British film industry offered us first a flatly plastic Postman Pat vehicle, then Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, a semi-notorious dog's dinner from which its eponymous canine star (2005-2017) never really recovered. These were cash-ins that suggested some ingrained inability to convert beloved childhood figures into anything more than flimsy bargain-bin merchandise - so Paddington got lucky in more than one respect. He was lucky, certainly, to attract the attention of the writer-director Paul King, whose gifts for leftfield world-building had been honed across several series of TV's The Mighty Boosh and transferred to the big screen, just about intact, with 2009's lowish-budget eyecatcher Bunny and the Bull.

Yet King, in turn, got lucky in garnering the support of David Heyman, the eminent producer looking for another franchise to nurture in the wake of Harry Potter's farewell, who was prepared to bankroll the recasting of Paddington's voice at the eleventh hour in order to ensure getting it right. Lesser half-term screenfiller would surely have stuck with Colin Firth, knowing full well that paying two actors for one role is an expensive business, and that this substitution would deprive subsequent publicity materials of a saleable A-lister. The decision to draft in Ben Whishaw (now, of course, inseparable from the character) suggested something else: that the production's goals were at least as creative as they were commercial. Paddington gained a sequel not just because people would pay to see it, but also because there were further stories worth telling; these have been handled with a similar care and attention.

The first film became such a sensation - earning rave reviews, stellar repeat business, and now Paddington 2 - that perhaps we can now freely admit that Paddington the visual effect is these films' least charming aspect. A pixellated wire brush with peculiarly glassy eyes, CGI Pad lacks the lived-in tangibility of the teddy bear who graced the original BBC series, and - in terms of visual sophistication - isn't so very far removed from those Garfields and Marmadukes who've littered the multiplexes in recent years. His appeal derives almost entirely from King's conception - which is the author Michael Bond's original conception - of an outsider whose smallness of stature sits in inverse proportion to the vastness of his heart ("if we're kind and polite, the world will be right"), and from Whishaw's voicework, without which, as Heyman realised, the character simply wouldn't be embraced as he has been. 

The new film, again written by King with Bunny co-conspirator Simon Farnaby, invites accusations of sequel bloat: it's longer and plottier, and ends with the Brown family pulling Mission: Impossible moves on the London to Bristol express, an entirely fluent and confident setpiece that makes you realise just how tentative the first film (action highlight: Paddington piloting a bathtub down some stairs, more Compo than Xander Cage) was in places. The political edge of that film - an immigration tale, and a pre-Brexit plea for tolerance - has diminished slightly in this expansion, although P2 works hard to reaffirm its community values: Windsor Gardens, barely populated in the first movie, is suddenly chocka with welcome TV faces (Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Robbie Gee) who clearly loved the original, picketed and petitioned (or kidnapped King's loved ones) to get involved, and tuned into the blithely offbeat, sincerely sweet vibe the director was going for all along.

The highest profile new Padfan, taking over from Nicole Kidman as guest villain, is none other than Hugh Grant in the guise of Phoenix Buchanan, a struggling actor and part-time master criminal whose pursuit of an antique pop-up book leads to our ursine hero being put behind bars in a grievous case of mistaken identity. Many's the cheque-chasing A-lister who've condescended to appear in a kids' movie, but Grant genuinely appears to be having a whale of a time here, quick-changing into vagrant, beefeater, even nun garb, and generally coming on rather like a malevolent Nicholas Parsons: Buchanan is an individual so vain he can't even walk past a shop window without checking - and, more often than not, admiring - his own reflection. 

The whole movie is governed by this sense of play, rather than any grim contractual obligation; to all outward appearances, the first film's success has only encouraged Heyman to hand King and Farnaby - childlike souls, apparently devoid of cynicism, and full of wonder - bigger toys, and more space in which to mess around with them. The fraught prison commissary - overseen by one Knuckles McGraw (Brendan Gleeson, one of the biggest toys), a fearsome brute chef wielding a rolling pin of iron - comes to be transformed, under Paddington's benevolent influence, into a genteel tea room; the corridors and stairwells beyond will eventually provide the framing for a big Busby Berkeley number; an escape bid combines this franchise's great affection for London as a location with an elevated strain of picture-book imagery.

Once they've got the felt tips out, there's no stopping them: King fills in the sorry details of the dog food commercial Buchanan became best known for, Farnaby the names of Knuckles' fellow prisoners. (I liked the Browns' kitchen to-do list, which simply reads "Free Paddington".) It could all have presented as merely childish indulgence, a transatlantic translation of the worst of Wes Anderson, yet its flights of fancy are made possible by good, close, attentive scripting: the finale offers lovely pay-offs to earlier, seemingly throwaway jokes about Mr. and Mrs. Brown's new hobbies. Watertight as entertainment, every shot, detail and choice here serves as its own tribute to the late Bond's belief that little things - a red sock in the laundry, a vulnerable newcomer, a beat in which it looks as though something Very Bad Indeed is about to happen, small gestures of charity and politesse - make all the difference.

Paddington 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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