When we last saw Paddington Brown (né Bear), the little marmalade-loving, digitally animated bear-person voiced by Ben Whishaw in the sweet and amusing British kids’ lit adaptation Paddington, he was happily settled into a new life with his adopted human family in London. But that was 2014 (or 2015 here in United States, where the movie opened as the rare quality mid-January family release), a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world whose anxieties about a growing refugee crisis were gently ridiculed by the film and its good-humored portrayal of the modern, multicultural British capital. Times are less sunny now; the fuzzy little guy has found himself behind bars, sentenced to a long imprisonment for the theft of a one-of-a-kind pop-up book from his best friend Mr. Gruber’s antique store. But the real culprit is still at large: Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a formerly A-list actor who now plays a monocle-wearing dog in pet-food commercials and plans to use clues hidden in the book to find a lost fortune that he’ll use to finance his godawful West End one-man musical comeback show.
Splitting in too many directions as it follows Paddington’s adjustment to life in prison and the efforts of his human guardians, the Browns (Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville), to clear his name, the more episodic Paddington 2 struggles to keep a balance between plot and pleasure. But it’s still a cut above the majority of family entertainment, and director Paul King, who got his start helming the surreal cult comedy series The Mighty Boosh, continues to prove himself a confident and comparatively sophisticated stylist, employing cutaway sets, Rube Goldberg slapstick, animated sequences in different styles, and loads of visual gags to create the film’s dollhouse-storybook world; the aesthetic influence of Wes Anderson is especially pronounced in the scenes set at the prison, where an early mishap involving a red sock and the prison laundry dyes the convicts’ uniforms a Grand Budapest Hotel shade of lavender pink. (The Life Aquatic supporting player Noah Taylor even shows up as one of the scary inmates who eventually warms up to our well-meaning, accident-prone bear hero.)
Which is to say that, though Paddington 2 is squarely aimed at young kids and their fascination with grown-up eccentricities and the diversity of the world that lies beyond their front door, it’s a movie adults won’t squirm through. King’s humor and absurdist instincts are winning, from a Mr. Bean-by-way-of-digital-effects scene that finds Paddington taking a disastrous part-time job as a barber’s assistant to the various shenanigans of the villain, Buchanan, who scours the city for treasure disguised in his old theater costumes, leading Paddington’s friends to pin the crimes on a purported gang that includes a nun, a medieval knight, and the Great Expectations character Abel Magwitch. (Having a narcissistic character stand in front of a portrait of himself is an old visual gag, but King and production designer Gary Williamson cover the interior of Buchanan’s Notting Hill terrace house with framed glossies of Grant, like a teen girl’s bedroom circa the early 2000s gone rococo.) Even at its most irreverent and weird—and it gets pretty weird, with more Brechtian appearances by the calypso band that popped up everywhere in the first film—Paddington 2 never betrays the sweet-tempered worldview of its source material, the long-running series of children’s books written by the late Michael Bond.
Though the formulaic treasure-hunting plot sometimes gets out of hand, it doesn’t muddle the intended message. In an inspired touch, King and co-writer Simon Farnaby, a fellow Mighty Boosh veteran, make their bad guy a perfect inversion of the Paddington-verse’s core values of neighborliness and community: a prima donna whose career has been destroyed by his complete inability to work with other people. (Mr. Curry, the antagonist played by Peter Capaldi in the first film, is still around, running a self-appointed one-man neighborhood watch that seems suspiciously focused on bear activity.) And the MacGuffin treasure that he’s hunting is a white Russian fortune—a subtle nod to the fact that Britain’s history with political and wartime refugees started much earlier than the 21st century. Improbably, this playful homage to Bond’s world comes from the same director who brought us “The Strange Tale Of The Crack Fox.”