"Paddington 2 " is that rare creation that somehow improves on its already charming predecessor.
Maybe it's the addition of Hugh Grant as a lunatic faded star desperate for some cash to get his one man show going, Brendan Gleeson as a moody prison chef named Knuckles McGinty, a totally random dance routine during the credits, or just the sheer earnestness of it all but "Paddington 2" is a total delight.
Paul King returns as director and co-writer for the sequel which finds Paddington (voiced again by Ben Whishaw) living happily with the Brown family, Mary (Sally Hawkins), Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). Paddington, through his Pollyanna positivity and Emily Post politeness, has turned their little candy-colored neighborhood, Windsor Gardens, into a friendly paradise.
Paddington gets a mission when he spots a London pop-up book at an antique store that he thinks would be perfect to buy his Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton), who is still in Peru and has always dreamed of going to London (pretty thoughtful for an anthropomorphized bear). But, it's expensive and he needs to get a job in order to afford it. It's an easy set up for some hijinks as he tries and fails at a few things. In a film that feels so effortless, this is a rare snag that's a little forced and chaotic. Thankfully it's all building to something better, which is not coincidentally related to the arrival of Hugh Grant.
At a fair, Paddington meets the actor Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), who was once a star and has now been reduced to doing dog food commercials and takes an unusual interest in the pop-up book Paddington mentions he's saving up for. One night Paddington notices a strange man breaking into the antique store that houses the coveted pop-up book, attempts to stop it and wrongly ends up in prison.
Pretty dark for a Paddington movie, sure, but King keeps it light and positive (this is perhaps the brightest and cleanest prison you've ever seen on screen). And Paddington quickly charms his fellow inmates and the grouchy chef who doesn't know that Knuckles begins with a K and not an N.
Grant seems to be having the most fun he's had in years on screen as the overly theatrical villain, who debates his devious plans out loud with a room full of costumed mannequins that he also provides the voices for (Hamlet and Scrooge among them). And there are some wonderfully fun digs at the egotism of actors throughout, including when Mrs. Bird explains that actors are "some of the most evil, devious people on the planet."
Sally Hawkins also gets a nice spotlight as the eager-to-believe matriarch who is compelling enough to make you really trust that she's possibly gotten a lead from a newsstand parrot about who framed Paddington.
Is it too lame to get wrapped up in the messages in a kid's film? "Paddington 2" has a lot of worthy ones — the importance of kindness, family, and, heck, even saving money to get a thoughtful gift for someone who means something to you.
It is a cheerful, sweet movie, where there is no problem that a lovingly made marmalade sandwich won't fix, and it'll be sure to leave kids and adults smiling and even wiping a few tears away at the end.
"Paddington," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some action and mild rude humor." Running time: 103 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr