You know what we don't see enough of in movies? Whimsy. Movies, especially movies for families, don't trust the audience enough to step away from the dazzle and the pratfall. As entertaining as that can be, it is a relief to see a movie that trusts us enough to keep its tone gentle and, yes, whimsical. And that makes it utterly beguiling.
There is a very brief refresher to introduce us to the backstory of the marmalade-loving Peruvian bear. An Anglophile bear couple rescues a little cub and cancels their planned trip to London to raise him. And then we catch up to Paddington. His adoptive father has died and his adoptive mother, Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) has moved to an assisted living home in Peru. Paddington, now living with the Brown family, is a cherished part of the neighborhood, always looking out for the members of the community. Just one neighbor, cranky Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi), a nosy self-appointed community watchman, keeps insisting that Paddington should not be there.
When the local antique shop receives a one-of-a-kind pop-up book showing London's most iconic locations, Paddington realizes that it is the perfect gift for Aunt Lucy, who always dreamed of London but never been able to visit. We go inside the book in an enchanting animated sequence, moving in and out of the beautifully crafted pop-ups. Paddington takes jobs as a barber's assistant and a window washer to earn the money to buy the book for his aunt, but things do not go very well and there are some mild slapstick catastrophes.
And then Paddington catches a thief stealing the pop-up book and in trying to catch him appears to be the culprit himself. He is sentenced to prison, where things do not go well until his optimism and generosity -- and recipe for marmalade, endear him to everyone, even the hot-tempered chef (Brendan Gleeson). Paddington likes to quote Aunt Lucy, who said, "If you're kind and polite, the world will be right."
Hugh Grant has found his very best role as Phoenix Buchanan, a formerly successful actor with a plummy accent reduced to dog food commercials (wearing a dog suit), and a master of disguise who knows that the pop-up-book has a secret message leading to a cache of jewels. It is impossible to imagine whether he or costume designer Lindy Hemming had more fun with the sheer preposterousness of Buchanan's pretensions and wildness of his various get-ups, even when he is not in costume. There's a Da Vinci code-like treasure hunt as Buchanan tries to solve the puzzle before the Browns can track down the real thief and exonerate Paddington. Oh, and Mr. Brown needs to resolve a bit of a mid-life crisis, Mrs. Brown wants to swim the Channel, the Brown children need to learn a couple of lessons, and there's even a bit of a romance. Plus, Aunt Lucy's birthday is coming!
The design of the film is inventive and inviting, with a steam-operated amusement park a special highlight. The movie follows its own advice, with kindness and courtesy in its story and story-telling, and the result is as irresistible as a marmalade sandwich proffered by a bear in a red hat.
NOTE: Stay for the credits and a delightful musical number