"PADDINGTON 2" — 3 stars — Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Hugh Grant, voice of Ben Whishaw; PG (action and mild rude humor); in general release
When you peel away everything else, "Paddington 2's" story is pretty routine — even predictable. Yet, Paul King's film is so full of character and charm that the story is almost a secondary concern. "Paddington 2" is a welcome gift for families at the dawn of 2018, especially at a time when good movie options start to feel a little thin.
The original film from 2014 brought the celebrated bear cub Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) from Darkest Peru to his loving home in London with the Brown family, but "Paddington 2" has the well-spoken bear longing for home — or at least his dear Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who he left behind.
Aunt Lucy is coming up on her 100th birthday, and Paddington wants to give her a taste of the London experience she always dreamed of. When he finds an elaborate London-themed pop-up book in an antique store run by Brown family friend Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent), Paddington realizes he's found the perfect gift, but since the book is well out of the bear's modest price range, he decides to get a job and start saving.
A botched gig at a barbershop leads to a more successful outing as a window washer, but right as Paddington is about ready to pull the trigger on Aunt Lucy's gift, the book is stolen. Unbeknownst to Paddington, one of the Brown family's neighbors — a washed-up actor named Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) — has also set his sights on the book, believing it to be a treasure map. Thanks to a bit of bad timing, Paddington gets charged for the theft and winds up in prison.
So "Paddington 2" follows two story threads as Paddington tries to make the best of life in the big house while the Browns try to chase down the real culprit.
From here, the charm of the franchise — which was well established in the first film — takes over. The film's plot provides a series of amusing set pieces for Paddington to get into crazy antics, as he injects a dose of propriety into the dank prison culture by teaching a crusty chef named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) to make marmalade sandwiches.
In the free world, Grant has a great time lampooning eccentric actor stereotypes and donning a series of disguises as he tries to follow the pop-up book's clues to the treasure, and the Brown family has just enough going on in their personal lives to keep them interesting without distracting from the film's primary trajectory.
The British humor is underscored by all sorts of veteran actors, from Grant and Broadbent to Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, who play Mr. and Mrs. Brown. (Michael Gambon also appears in an opening flashback as the voice of Paddington's Uncle Pastuzo).
But even the British cast and signature wit has to take a backseat to the pure visual creativity of "Paddington 2's" production, which comes to life in a series of elaborate animated fantasy sequences, such as a wonderful scene that takes place inside the pop-up book itself.
It's that extra dose of creativity that elevates "Paddington 2" from the status of routine sequel to the kind of film parents will find worth packing up the kids for, even when the weather outside is still frightful.
"Paddington 2" is rated PG for action and mild rude humor; running time: 103 minutes.