At one point in the new film that (ahem) bears his name, Paddington Brown, the Peruvian-born, London-dwelling ursine hero with the blue coat and floppy red hat, rattles off the recipe for an unusually large quantity of marmalade.
It would be criminal to say too much about the reasons for this impractical assignment, or the silly, utterly captivating outcome of Paddington's rare foray into the culinary arts. Suffice to say that he will need a lot of help, a lot of sugar and about a thousand oranges to pull it off.
This thoroughly delightful movie, for its part, always seems to be following its own carefully worked-out recipe to the letter. It does this not out of timidity or laziness — quite the opposite — but because the particular alchemy it's attempting is so tricky.
Arriving just in time to brighten a typically dreary post-holiday season at the multiplex, "Paddington 2" is a beautifully structured comedy of the old school, full of inspired blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay, intricate gags that build on each other, and narrative digressions that pay off in ways that feel inspired rather than predictable. It's an exquisite reminder of the wondrous things that can happen when a storyteller of boundless imagination avails himself of some rigorous discipline.
The storyteller is Paul King, back for more after writing and directing 2014's hit "Paddington." In this sequel, co-written with Simon Farnaby, he once again hurls the accident-prone bear (perfectly voiced again by Ben Whishaw) into a preposterous action-comedy plot without betraying the gently whimsical, thoroughly British spirit of Michael Bond's original books.
The presence of so many scheming super-villains in the otherwise quiet neighborhood of Windsor Gardens may admittedly defy logical explanation, even by the standards of a movie in which no one raises an eyebrow at a walking, talking CGI bear. But those baddies do what they're supposed to do, which is allow Paddington's commitment to decency, thoughtfulness and impeccable manners win the day under any circumstances.
"If we are kind and polite, the world will be right," says Paddington, fondly quoting his aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton), who shipped herself off to a Peruvian retirement home in the first film. Paddington, of course, sailed on to London, where everything turned out right indeed: He was taken in and ultimately adopted by the Brown family, led by the sweet, free-spirited Mary (Sally Hawkins) and her fretful husband, Henry (Hugh Bonneville).
By the time "Paddington 2" opens, the young bear has become the light and life of the neighborhood, embraced by all except the Browns' scowling, xenophobic neighbor Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi). One day Paddington, visiting the gift shop of Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) in search of a birthday present for his aunt, stumbles upon a book filled with gorgeous pop-up illustrations of London landmarks. As we see in a gloriously animated sequence, in which Paddington finds himself happily lost amid the book's three-dimensional pages, it's the perfect gift for someone who, like Lucy, always wanted to visit the city but never got the chance.
Alas, neither Paddington's short-lived experience as a barber's assistant nor his more enjoyable stint as a window washer could possibly earn him enough to afford such a treasure. (They do, however, make for some sublime, gravity-defying workplace slapstick.) It will be a moot point soon, in any case: A deviously hammy local actor named Phoenix Buchanan (a terrifically self-skewering Hugh Grant) has his own nefarious designs on the book and winds up stealing it, framing the bear in the process.
Paddington may wind up behind bars, but this craftily plotted movie is liberated from that point onward. Even as it traces Phoenix's descent into dastardly "Da Vinci Code"-style intrigues, as well as the Browns' valiant efforts to clear the name of their newest family member, "Paddington 2" somehow morphs into one of the most memorable prison pictures of recent vintage, anchored by Brendan Gleeson's hilariously growling turn as the most intimidating of Paddington's fellow inmates.
To say more about the story would be unnecessary, but it would hardly spoil the conceptual beauty and pinpoint precision of King's sight gags or the marvelously intricate detailing of Gary Williamson's production design. If the first "Paddington" seemed to channel the hand-crafted visuals and teeming, symmetrical frames of Wes Anderson, then "Paddington 2" somehow succeeds in pushing that stylization to a dazzling new level of aesthetic delirium, albeit with an unforced, lyrical sweetness in lieu of Anderson's studied detachment.
This is a picture that gently restores comedy and compassion to the natural bedfellows they are, and that finds its most lasting beauty in its characters' faces, fur-covered or otherwise. You can see it in the slightly daft twinkle in the eyes of Julie Walters, reprising her role as Mary's sturdy mother, and in the clever physical humor gamely undertaken by Bonneville as his Henry navigates a mild midlife crisis.
As for Hawkins, who can presently be seen in a decidedly less family-friendly creature feature called "The Shape of Water," she remains the loveliest, most empathetic of contemporary screen heroines, an intrepid adventurer who is also a nurturing spirit. The loving hug she extended Paddington in the first film was not just a gesture but a promise, and that promise is more than kept in a sequel that wraps you in its own warm embrace from start to finish.
Rating: PG, for some action and mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general release