It’s the misfortune of “Peter Rabbit” to appear so shortly after “Paddington2.” Both are based on classic British children’s books, and both involve a combination of live-action and animation. But while “Peter” is better than one might have been made to expect from its first frantic trailer, it pales by comparison to the utterly charming sequel about the marmalade-loving bear. Owing as much to Bugs Bunny (and the slapstick of John Hughes’s “Home Alone” movies) as to Beatrix Potter, it nonetheless retains enough twee British humor to prove moderately fetching.
The first segment in the movie reflects, though in a far more frenetic fashion, Potter’s original little story. Peter (voiced by James Corden), his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley), along with their cautious cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), invade the garden of grumpy Mr. McGregor (live-action Sam Neill, virtually unrecognizable) and nearly get captured. When Peter returns to retrieve his waistcoat—an inheritance from his father, who had fallen to McGregor in flashback—their renewed tussle leads the farmer to keel over with a heart attack. (Two deaths in such a short space might seem excessive, but at least they’re quickly dismissed.)
With McGregor gone, Peter and his fellow critters—a menagerie that includes snooty, snorting Pigling (Ewan Leslie) and Mrs. Tiggy Winkle (Sia), along with an assortment of foxes, rodents and even a buck called O’Deer (Christian Gazal)—take over his house for a wild party. But their reign is not long, because McGregor’s heir Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) soon shows up to claim the property. He’s an ultra-fastidious clerk who’s just been sacked by his boss at Harrod’s (Marianne Jean Baptiste) for going bonkers when denied a promotion, and his intent is quickly to sell the place and use the proceeds to open a toyshop back in London that will undermine the department store’s business.
For that plan to succeed, however, he’ll have to rid the property of troublesome Peter and his pals, which starts a virtual war between them. To complicate matters further, Thomas quickly falls for Bea (Rose Byrne), a sweet-tempered painter who lives next door and is the rabbits’ stalwart defender. (She’s an obvious stand-in for Potter, as her paintings of the rabbits—which she dismisses as junk compared to her “serious” artwork—demonstrate.) Thomas is quickly torn as he tries to rid himself of Peter while keeping Bea from seeing what he is up to—and Peter wages reciprocal war on him that Bea refuses to see. Thus the “Home Alone”-style slapstick.
To be sure, the degree of mayhem—which comes to involve electrified fences and multiple sticks of dynamite—borders on the excessive, and it certainly doesn’t fit very comfortably with the gently didactic tone of Potter. At the same time, one has to accept the different expectations of youngsters today, and director Will Gluck and his co-writer Rob Lieber are clearly trying to walk a fine line, remaining generally faithful to their source’s spirit while adding contemporary kidflick elements to the mix. While they don’t always succeed in maintaining a perfect balance, they succeed more often than not.
Certainly young viewers—and their older companions—will be amused by the grace notes Gluck and Lieber insert into the story, like O’Deer’s reaction to headlights, or the reaction of a rooster (Will Reichelt) who is distressed each morning when he finds that the sun he assumed he had permanently put to sleep the night before returns the next morning. Even the obvious borrowings from earlier pictures—like the repeated gag about singing birds getting disrupted in flight (derived from the gag in “Shrek”)—work reasonably well.
As to the cast, Gleeson, who has been rather pallid in the past, shows a genuine flair for physical comedy even if it’s sometimes taken too far, and while Byrne is rather let down by material that makes Bea seem more than a little dim, she brings a likable exuberance to the role. The voiceover work is also fine, with Corden keeping Peter’s frenetic bent under control, and Robbie—whose Flopsy also serves as the narrator—abetting him nicely. Leslie’s Pigling, who can turn on a dime from effete to genuinely porcine, is also a hoot. Kudos as well are due to the animation team, whose work is seamlessly matched with Peter Menzies, Jr.’s luscious live-action cinematography, to Dominic Lewis, whose score is reliably suited to the visuals, and to editors Gazal and Jonathan Tappin, who keep the movie working at a good clip.
Potter purists will inevitably be loath to embrace this revisionist take on her most famous creation. But “Peter Rabbit” is probably as reasonable a compromise between absolute fidelity to her work and contemporary kidflick demands that one could expect. While no classic, it’s agreeable enough—though regrettably no “Paddington.”