Among the many miraculous charms of the new film “Paddington 2,” one that I’m most personally grateful for is that its release got me to finally sit down and watch the first “Paddington” -- something Americans have been able to do for the last three years, but that because I have lived far, far below my means, I had not yet done.
Nothing can explain the self-cruelty that kept me away from the delightfully British “Paddington,” which came highly recommended to me, other than, perhaps, one thing: The first trailer that I had seen several times in late 2014 centered on an -- albeit kid-friendly -- obscene act involving two toothbrushes and excessive amounts of earwax (or, would it be called “bearwax?”).
Make no mistake: the scene, however gross, is bursting with the whimsical imagination that fills every frame of both “Paddington” movies. But I was nevertheless dreading the experience of seeing the scene again in context.
That context, it turns out, is a film that is one of the highest achievements of the human spirit in recorded history. “Paddington,” dare I say it, is a perfect film. Despite its brief interest in waxy disgustingness, the film floored me with its kindness, its visual imagination, its broad-hearted metaphor for refugees and immigration. How “Brexit” happened after “Paddington” already existed in the world is among the most baffling of all mysteries.
I suppose not enough people had seen it. A problem I willingly admit I was part of.
Now “Paddington 2” is here, and it’s something of a victory lap, as it is invested in many of the same themes of the first film and operates in much the same way.
The way the films operate -- and I couldn’t love or admire it more -- is this: A polite, small bear who speaks English in the kind British voice of Ben Whishaw, goes through the world like Charlie Chaplin or WALL-E, in a series of intricately crafted visual gags, bringing hope and joy where it wasn’t before. He is feared and rejected by small-minded folks who instantly write him off as “other,” but he is accepted by the Brown family, especially its matriarch (Sally Hawkins).
There’s a villainous character played by a beloved performer -- the first film had Nicole Kidman, this one has Hugh Grant, and both are given a lot of fun stuff to do. Grant plays a disgruntled, formerly beloved actor who does his evil deeds disguised in elaborate costumes and who, in his secret attic, takes on his many past stage roles as he discusses his evil plot with himself.
The moral fortitude of these films -- which goes far beyond just politeness, and enters the realm of a political perspective -- provides a backbone for their emotional core. “Paddington” and “Paddington 2” have an outlook on the world that is not just worthy of attention, but which may be the hope that this fractured world needs.
Oh, and there’s marmalade. Like spinach for Popeye or honey for Winnie the Pooh, the orange-based jam is the secret sauce in Paddington’s life, and in his films.
I do wish “Paddington 2” offered something beyond “more ‘Paddington,’ ” as I think the best sequels do. It’s hard to point to any of this film’s delights that is wholly absent from the first film. But there’s also something evergreen about those delights, and they are repeated here with such craft, invention and meticulous care that they feel new.
When I was a child and teen, I bristled at the notion of movies being “for children.” One reason I loved Pixar movies is that I saw them not as children’s movies, but as great films that happened to appeal to a wide audience. This is especially true of “The Incredibles,” I think, as well as “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and “Up” -- animated movies that follow the tradition of Mickey Mouse, but which seemed pitched at an adult level.
The “Paddington” movies have made me rethink my disdain for pure “children’s movies,” because -- while there is plenty in them that appeals to adults -- I think they are essentially aimed at children, but in a more serious way than I have ever seen done before.
Some of the performances are over-the-top, because the film is committed to seeing the world the way a child sees it. In that way, it reminded me of Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which also beautifully operates on a child-like level, but which does so with a focus on sadness and melancholy.
Usually “aimed at children” is shorthand for narrative laziness or shoddy workmanship (which is such an insult to children, really). In “Paddington 2,” it means that abstract ideas are painstakingly visualized in scenes that seem to burst straight out of the imagination. And it means that action is staged and shot so that you feel the danger that a child might feel. It means artfully capturing and making tangible concepts that only exist in the unencumbered human mind.
In other words, it’s just great cinema.
Director: Paul King
Starring: Ben Whishaw, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant
Running time: 1 hour, 44 min
Rating: PG for some action and mild rude humor