Why ‘Paddington 2’ is one of the decade’s best films

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“Paddington 2”
Released Jan. 12, 2018 in United States
Directed by Paul King

How do you define a perfect film? Like any subjective exercise, the answer will be slightly different for everybody, but at its basic level, it’s a movie that we watch as viewers that we wouldn’t change a thing about it. That may be easy to say, but like pitching a perfect game in baseball, we can’t understate precisely how hard it is to do the same in film.

When we talk about movies, we’ll often focus on the director, the stars and the story, but as anybody who’s sat through the credits knows, making a film requires the work of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, all of whom are using their unique talents to the best of their ability. It takes the vision of a director to bring everybody together to hopefully make an excellent final movie, but ultimately, there are countless ways something could go wrong along the way that could knock an engaged audience out of the film.

When you think of it that way, it’s a minor miracle that a film ends up being okay. So a perfect movie, one that you wouldn’t change a thing or notice a mistake? Well, that’s a high bar, which brings us to 2018’s “Paddington 2.”

The movie, a sequel to the 2014 original that brought the hero of the Michael Bond children’s books to life, sees the kind but clumsy small bear from Darkest Peru (voiced by Ben Whishaw) living his best life with the Brown family in London. He’s loved by his adopted family, and brightens the spirits of the neighbors in his community in Windsor Gardens, with the lone exception of the prickly Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi). Even still, Paddington has clearly won the affection of nearly everyone he meets, thanks in part to his ethos, “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” a motto he adopted from his Aunt Lucy, who remains in Peru.

As Aunt Lucy’s birthday approaches, Paddington is inspired to find a way to show her what London is like, as her greatest wish was to visit the city one day. Paddington discovers an old pop-up book of London locations in an antique shop and begins doing odd jobs to save enough money to buy the book. However, an arrogant has-been actor by the name of Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) steals the book as it contains secrets to a treasure, and manages to frame Paddington in the process. Now this kind and polite bear finds himself in prison filled with the meanest, angriest, and violent men around, and none are more onerous than chef convict Knuckles (Brendan Gleeson).

From this straightforward premise, “Paddington 2” delivers sheer cinematic magic that is charming, heartwarming, emotional, and hilarious. I would be wary of describing any more of a plot that doesn’t waste a single line of dialogue, dignifies the lives of every character, and pays off every single moment. It is rare to see a film with a script (by Paul King and Simon Farnaby) that so cleverly hides its pieces early on that would become significant moments later on that you forgot about because you’re so enthralled in the climax.

But while “Paddington 2” would receive high praise for its crackerjack story alone, it also exceeds every other level of filmmaking. King, who also directed the film, beautifully visualizes a storybook London that uses imaginative CGI effects to enhance live-action photography. King also masters a visual language in the movie, as we can see how the presence (and absence) of Paddington noticeably impacts the places he lives in. In addition to a splendid framing of the story through our eyes, “Paddington 2” benefits with a delightful auditory experience, as film composer Dario Marianelli crafts a charming, evocative score that further pulls us into Paddington’s plight and adventures. Finally, “Paddington 2” features an all-star British ensemble cast, including Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Gleeson, and Grant. The latter has a career-highlight performance as the nefariously charming Phoenix, who offers enough dramatic pomposity to rival a 60s Batman villain. Needless to say, everyone involved is at the top of their game.

Throughout all the excellence on display, what engages me most about “Paddington 2” is its heart. “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” isn’t just a quote from the movie; it’s an ethos that infects its entire world. “Paddington 2” was released in the back half of the 2010s, when the powers-that-be of the world seemed bound and determined to push agendas of anger and hostility to the breaking point while framing kindness and empathy as weakness. The world of Paddington is as sweet as a children’s book, exercising cynicism and negativity along the way. It’s a fantasy, but “Paddington 2” reminds us that art can give us comfort, inspiration, and solace in bad times. It’s remarkably unique in that respect, even amongst current family films, where commercial instincts tend to infuse movies with toyetic marketing, generic animation, sassy celebrity voices, popular songs, and an addiction to outdated cultural references no child would understand. “Paddington 2” is free from all of that, and its sincerity and charm is a virtue.

The only problem was few people in the United States went to see it. Released in the cold winter weeks of early January, audiences skipped overseeing the bear in the red hat in spite of glowing reviews. “Paddington 2” had a weak opening weekend and dropped fast from there, but not unlike the bear in the film, it has won the hearts of everyone who has seen it, and continue to sing its praises. When one critic recently put “Paddington 2” on his list of the most overrated movies of the decade, countless people rallied on social media to give that critic a hard stare.

“Paddington 2” is a respite for families tired of commercialization, a crowd-pleaser to warm your heart on a cold day, and a technical and artistic marvel of filmmaking. It works on every level, so yeah, it’s a perfect movie.

The Weekend: While researching past film releases of any given weekend historically, it’s rare to find a week where the choice for the Ultimate Movie Year was so readily apparent, but here we are. As noted last week, we’re still in a period where big-budget Hollywood movies are dominating the box office, and acclaimed pictures in limited release are receiving wider distribution, so it’s extremely rare to see anything notable in the past. It’s a weekend that seems destined to open, at best, movies that are a decent enough time at the theater but are soon to be forgotten in the DVD bargain bins or cable reruns we’ll rarely stop to watch.

Here are some examples: “Internal Affairs” in 1990, “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” in 1992, “Save the Last Dance” in 2001, “Orange County” in 2002, “Coach Carter” in 2005, “Glory Road” in 2006, “Taken 3” in 2015, and “The Upside” in 2019. Maybe you’ve seen these movies, and even liked them, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who’d name any of them their favorite movie. Considering this, it’s easy to see why “Paddington 2” immediately jumps to the front of the line.

There are a few movies that did gain a bit of a cult following, including 1989’s “Gleaming the Cube” and 1993’s original “Leprechaun,” but you’d have to go back into the far past to discover the other most significant films of the weekend. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell razzed and vexed each other as newspaper reporters (and ex-lovers) in the Howard Hawks romantic comedy classic, “His Girl Friday,” debuting in New York City back in 1940. Another notable romantic comedy debuted in 1940 as well, as Jimmy Stewart starred in Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” which eventually became the inspiration for 1998’s “You Got Mail.” Finally, director Cecil B. DeMille unleashed his ensemble circus drama “The Greatest Show on Earth” in early January, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year.

Next Week: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on January 9, 2020.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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