Given the rocky paths of many sequels, it's a special joy that "Paddington 2" is sweet as marmalade.
Those who already know about Paddington, the plucky little Peruvian bear who moved to London with flawless British manners already in place, here's a delicious second helping. Those who are new to the saga from Michael Bond's good-natured children's books, prepare for a treat. Many children's films are cloyingly sentimental and saddled with group-written scripts that buzz around aimlessly like lightning bugs in a jar. This is consistently good character-humor plus solid slapstick plus little dabs of drama to let your lungs recover from laughing, an accessible and engaging family romp.
As he did in the first, co-writer/director Paul King has made a top-notch CGI animated film crammed with the sort of droll British humor that made household icons of Wallace and Gromit. Paddington, whimsically voiced by Ben Whishaw, is now practically family with his guardians, the Browns (Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as the artistic mom and square dad, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin as their inquisitive journalist daughter and railroad engineering prodigy son), who appear live-action. He sees the best in everyone he encounters in their pleasant neighborhood and draws happy smiles from most. His motto, "If we're kind and polite, the world will be right," is the film's entirely sincere moral.
There's always a but. Here, as in the previous film, there is a British star aching to do a manic turn as the antagonist. Last time, Nicole Kidman was excellent as a dastardly taxidermist who wanted to transform Paddington into a museum exhibit. Now there's Hugh Grant, playing a faded stage star who aims to bankroll his comeback through the theft of a rare, old pop-up book of London landmarks, which he knows contains secret clues to a hidden treasure. That's exactly the book that innocent Paddington wanted to send to his aunt in South America. For reasons involving a very bad haircut, the judge hearing the case sends the bear to prison for 10 years while the devious burglar walks free.
Grant does a breathtaking more-is-more performance here, creating an abysmal ham with haughty visions of grandiosity using his "acting" skills to don elaborate disguises. Over the course of the film, he presents himself as a homeless man, a knight in armor, a nun and more. He also appears, with abject embarrassment, in a dog food commercial as a la-di-da pooch.
Grant is no longer the young looker that he was, but he has grown into quite a knockout as a comedian. Also finding ribs to tickle and sides to split are Brendan Gleeson as Paddington's hard-boiled prison cook, and Hawkins swimming through a submarine rescue that looks too close to her work in "The Shape of Water" to be mere coincidence.
One advisory. As I said earlier, novices should prepare for viewing "Paddington 2." If you haven't seen "Paddington" in its 2015 theatrical release or recent life online (it's currently a featured title on Netflix), you're not ready for the second chapter. For newcomers, this cascade of self-referential in-jokes and callbacks to colorful side characters will wander the land of the lost. Getting ready for the new film will be one of the most charming study assignments of your life.