Friday, January 12, 2018

Movie Review: Paddington 2

Much to my shame, I skipped the first Paddington when it was in theaters and finally caught it a week too late to include in my end of year wrap-up for 2015. If I'd seen it a little earlier, it would have taken the top spot, above The Force Awakens. Needless to say, I caught the second installment opening day. Let's just say it's currently holding at 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes for a reason.

If you haven't seen part one and haven't been paying attention to reviews, you may be trying to reconcile all this with the trailers, which seemingly depict the movies as substandard CG-enhanced kids entertainment. Rest assured, however, these are exceptional CG-enhanced kids entertainment.

They take a premise that's been done dozens of times since the 90's: a character drawn from old source material is updated, brought to life through digital effects, and set loose on the modern world. Only instead of treating this ironically, they embrace the core heart of that source completely, then build a setting, tone, theme, and story around this.

I suspect that's part of the disconnect around the trailers. The US ones, at least, downplay the sentiment and try and sell this as a farcical comedy in the vein of the Garfield, Smurf, and Chipmunk movies none of us bothered to watch. But that's not what the Paddington movies are - these are closer to Amelie or Millions, seasoned with a dash of The Muppets. Hell, there may even be a little Speed Racer in the mix, particularly in part two.

The Paddington movies feature fantastic storytelling and film-making. I'd need to see them a few more times before trying to determine which is better. The first gets a boost by virtue of being, well, first, and by bravely exploring some of the source's problematic aspects. While Paddington 2 doesn't deconstruct the colonialist aspects of its source material the way its predecessor did, it's still a surprisingly political movie at times. Bear or not, Paddington is an immigrant, a fact the movie doesn't forget. The script never feels preachy, but I can't imagine anyone over the age of six being unable to pick out the movie's sole Brexit supporter.

There are actually a few aspects where the sequel surpasses the first movie. The main one is setting. Ostensibly, both movies take place in present-day London (along with the occasional flashback to the jungles of Peru). That said, these aren't beholden to realism. I mentioned Amelie earlier - the Paddington movies take a similar approach to their world, crafting a setting that's sort of a fairy tale reflection of ours. Plenty of other movies have attempted the same feat, with varying degrees of success. In my opinion (well, not just my opinion), a major factor in whether this comes off as charming or cloying boils down to consistency. Create a consistent, engrossing world on film, and the audience will follow along, no matter how seemingly absurd.

I'll take it a step further: the more absurd and surreal the world you're able to sell, the more entranced I'll be. I want to be transported to worlds where a talking bear is ultimately a mundane occurrence. Paddington accomplishes this in both movies, but the sequel doubles down with a backdrop overflowing with color, light, and pockets of magic spilling out of pop-up books or even lonely prison cells. The movie is unconstrained by realism, allowing it to delve into worlds of imagination and wonder without getting lost or coming off as insincere or cheesy.

Likewise, the characters - both new and recurring - are facets of this world. They make the setting more interesting with their presence, and the setting sells their unbelievable traits as normal. Sally Hawkins returns as Mrs. Brown, once again playing quite possibly the most likable character in a universe of likable characters, though Brendan Gleeson's Knuckles McGinty gives her a run for her money. The new villain is also wonderful, though I'm not sure anyone could ever match Nicole Kidman's taxidermist from part one.

I haven't even mentioned the humor of this movie. It's hilarious - even funnier than its predecessor - but, honestly, the comedy is almost an afterthought. Sure, I spent a great deal of this movie laughing, but it's easy to make something funny. What's harder is to make something charming, beautiful, and touching. Paddington 2 accomplishes all of that and is well worth your time. Just make sure you catch part one first if you haven't seen it - trust me: you want the whole experience.

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