Genial bear still has plenty of charm

G, 103 minutes, now showing in general release

Director Paul King and the producers of the Paddington movies select their villains with great care.

In the first film, it was an implacable Nicole Kidman as a museum curator out to add Paddington's hide to her collection. This time, it's a monstrously vain Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, a once-celebrated actor reduced to starring in dog food commercials.

Valiantly displaying his willingness to play the fool in a good cause, Grant prances through the part as if born to it, assisted by an extensive assortment of props. Phoenix fancies himself a master of disguise, so he's permitted fancy dress, false whiskers and silly walks.

This is actually meant to be Pooh Bear's year. Now 91, he's been honoured with an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a bio-pic of his creator, A. A. Milne, and his son, Christopher Robin.

But fans of Pooh's friendly rival, Paddington, haven't got the message and they're sticking with their favourite. Paddington 2's British box-office exceeded that of the original during its opening weekend and the reviewers have been equally enthusiastic.

It starts with a flashback recalling Paddington's beginnings in the Peruvian jungle with his beloved Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo. Then it sets us down in London's Windsor Gardens, where the bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is still enjoying life as part of the Brown family.

It's a London we see only in fairytales - a perennially sunny village full of people who look as if they're about to launch into a song-and-dance number. And all the regulars are back although there are one or two changes.

Hugh Bonneville is looking a little more harassed as Henry, the patriarch, who has missed out on an expected job promotion, and Sally Hawkins as Mary, his wife, is cherishing an unlikely ambition to swim the English Channel.

But Paddington is more popular than ever among all the Windsor Gardens residents. His only enemy is a crabby Peter Capaldi, the neighbourhood xenophobe, who would only be happy if everybody looked and behaved like him.

Things start to go awry when Paddington decides to give Aunt Lucy an expensive 100th birthday present - an antique pop-up book he's found in the local antique shop. To raise the money, he takes an ill-fated job as a barber's assistant, followed by a stint as a window cleaner.

And both supply the opportunity for a couple of gently choreographed slapstick routines, their appeal rooted in Paddington's well-meaning disposition and his unfailing ingenuity.

Whishaw's voice is perfect for him. There's no cuteness in it. Nor is there any hint of the pumped up jollity that Disney likes to give its cartoon animals. It catches Paddington's fragility and his stoicism, along with his determination. Best of all, he never says too much.

It's at this point that Phoenix begins to screw things up, breaking into the antique shop and stealing the pop-up book. Paddington is blamed and sent to gaol, where we meet a new cast of characters, led by Brendan Gleeson as the fearsome Nuckles, the prison cook, who takes to Paddington after getting a taste of one of his marmalade sandwiches.

The performances are all pitch-perfect but even the sorry sight of Paddington languishing in a prison cell can't disguise the fact that the story needs more tension. Kidman was genuinely scary but Grant's mugging - accomplished as it is - fails to drum-up the slightest hint of menace.

Nor is it meant to. Action is the thing here. The denouement is a slapstick marathon scaled up to take in two steam trains and a sea plane, and although it's as cleverly put together as you'd expect, it doesn't set the pulse racing.

At least, the pulse of an adult who has seen hero and villain battle on the roof of a speeding train in countless other movies.

Young children, however, may see it differently and Paddington, who must have the most expressive eyes ever seen on a CGI animal, has such durable charm that the film's shortcomings are overridden by its good-natured spirit.

This story Genial bear still has plenty of charm first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.