Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually.

And yet, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) still has his kids-only Winnie the Pooh side. He has a simple food addiction (marmalade sandwiches, rather than honey) and a single-minded purpose—in this film, to buy a suitable birthday present for the aunt who raised him and enabled him to follow his dream and find a good life and family in London.

But in large part, as with those other classic naïves, it’s how others around them react that help to establish the kind of layers that add complexity to the humor. In this film, the on-camera live-action actors don’t just mail it in. They’re fully invested in the film and they give it their all, whether it’s Hugh Bonneville channeling the kind of serious patriarchy that made him beloved on Downton Abbey, Sally Hawkins as the human adoptive mother who displays the same kind of likeable swim-against-the-current traits as her character in The Shape of Water, or Hugh Grant extending the parody of the character of a washed-up has-been still playing the part of the B celebrity that he explored in Music & Lyrics.

So far I’ve been talking about what adults will find appealing, but for the kids there’s a nice combination of action, warm fuzzy moments, and comedy, with the blend of CGI animation and live action as accomplished as we’ve seen. The most frightening sequence is actually the pre-title sequence when Paddington is rescued, and that puts everyone at ease that everything from that point on is going to be a piece of cake. Or bread. There are bright colors and running gags and everything is somehow sweet as marmalade—even those prison sequences that at first had me raising my eyebrows. But hey, prison is just another group of people, another neighborhood for Paddington to charm.

That the film works so well without a classic intimidating or frightening villain is another tribute to the writing and the acting. Grant is superb as the baddie, with support from an overzealous Paddington-hating neighborhood watch commander and a single neighborly naysayer. But they’re enough to add contrast and move the jokes, the accomplished animation, and the fun-to-follow plot along. It’s not much: Paddington finds the perfect gift—a pop-up book of London—that also is the target of washed-up actor Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), and in a role that combines The Pink Panther with Inspector Clouseau he goes after a set of clues detailed in the book in order to find a treasure. Meanwhile, Paddington wants that book, and for a time they clash . . . until Paddington is falsely accused of stealing it and put in prison, where he befriends a cook named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson) and a whole cast of colorful characters. Is it fun watching him transform the prison into a whole different place? Yep! And it doesn’t matter what age you are, because there are so many movie allusions to add texture and complexity if you look for them.

The bottom line is that Paddington 2 is simply the best of the furry live-action/CGI animation movies—one that truly can be enjoyed by the whole family. It’s a charmer!