Paddington 2 ★★★★½

(My review for The Daily Emerald, where I am now an Arts & Culture reporter!)

Sequels that outshine the originals are exceedingly rare, but “Paddington 2” pulls this lofty feat off with aplomb. The film has officially broken Rotten Tomatoes’ record for the best-reviewed film, previously set by last year’s “Lady Bird.” Though the “Paddington” films have been huge box office hits in their native United Kingdom, they have yet to fully break through to American audiences despite their universal critical-acclaim.

The film follows Paddington, a wholesome talking bear with a penchant for marmalade sandwiches, as he embarks on a quest to save enough money for the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy’s birthday — a rare pop-up picture book of London. After taking on a series of odd-jobs such as window-cleaning and hair-cutting, he finally gets the money, only for a thief to steal the book and leave Paddington with the blame — and a 10-year prison sentence. It’s then up to the Browns, his adoptive family, to retrieve the book and clear the little bear’s name.

But “Paddington 2” is more than just a feel-good family film — it’s also cinematically impressive, particularly the production design of the prison, which heavily parallels the pastels and whimsy of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Adults will also pick up on its political commentary, which references a post-Brexit world. Paddington himself hails from “Darkest Peru,” and after he’s falsely arrested for stealing the book, his crotchety neighbor Mr. Curry rants to the community about how they shouldn’t have trusted an immigrant. Curry later dismisses a newspaper’s claims that the bear is innocent as “propaganda,” perhaps a nod to President Drumpf’s infamous tirades against “fake news.”

The strong ensemble cast of British all-stars — including the delightful Sally Hawkins of the 13-time Oscar-nominated “The Shape of Water” and a high percentage of the adult “Harry Potter” actors — bolsters the film. But it’s Hugh Grant as the thieving, cravat-wearing Phoenix Buchanan who steals the show.

While the original “Paddington” antagonist was a Cruella DeVille-type taxidermist played with a steely stillness by Nicole Kidman, this time the little bear squares off against a Count Olaf-type has-been actor. His home is adorned with actual old headshots of floppy-haired Notting Hill-era Grant, as well as a secret attic in which he spends his time plotting and talking to mannequins dressed in his old theater costumes. Grant fully commits to the role, combining silly, theatrical facial and bodily expressions with his trademark English charm. On top of that, he shines in a snazzy, post-credits musical number that cements his campy supporting performance as Oscar-worthy.

Overwhelmed by the high volume of Oscar-nominated films you need to catch up on this season? No problem — “Paddington 2” wasn’t released until 2018 in the U.S., making it ineligible until next year’s Oscars, so you’ll be a whole year ahead of the game (assuming the Academy has refined enough taste to nominate it). Haven’t seen the original “Paddington”? That’s cool too — aside from a few subtle callbacks, the sequel has almost nothing to do with its predecessor (but if you’d like to catch up, it’s streaming on Netflix). Embarrassed about buying a ticket to a children’s film about a talking bear? Understandable — but the 30 seconds of shame you may feel at the box office will be vastly outweighed by the 104 minutes of pure bliss you’ll feel in the theater.

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