In the wake of the whimsical joy of the irresistibly charming ‘Paddington’ movies, along comes ‘Peter Rabbit’, another classic British children’s yarn due for an update. Unfortunately, the folks behind this movie opted to take a different direction, and made an almost inexplicably meta and faux-irreverent slab of slapstick comedy that won’t please either the Beatrix Potter purists or the kids looking for a new lovable icon.
This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is a long-winded meta joke in search of an audience, other than those who for some reason desperately wanted a wisecracking James Corden to voice a bunny. (I sincerely hope few of them exist.)
Director Will Gluck (who made the admittedly amusing ‘Easy A’, which shouldn’t have necessarily qualified him for this job) announces his plan for the movie early. It starts with a sweet shot of CGI birds breaking into song, only to be immediately silenced by Peter Rabbit (Corden, sigh) bursting through the scene. It’s as if the movie is announcing, “This ain’t your daddy’s Peter Rabbit,” even though a whimsical sing-song version of the character doesn’t really exist. From there, the farmer vs. pesky animals tale takes an odd turn that kind of makes this movie a sequel of sorts to the original books. Almost as soon as we’re introduced to Peter’s nemesis, Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill), he dies. So much for that timeless rivalry.
The farm is then inherited by McGregor’s great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, who’s apparently in everything these days), a city boy who hates country life. He plans on flipping the farm and moving back to the city. That would mean battling Peter and the rest of the woodland critters, but Thomas also quickly falls for the farmer’s neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne, clearly a stand-in of sorts for Beatrix Potter). She’s a local artist who has befriended Peter and the other rabbits, regularly painting them in a manner quite similar to Potter’s original illustrations. To woo her, Thomas needs to keep his battle and plans secret. That human relationship makes Peter jealous and… yeah, somehow this is the plot of the ‘Peter Rabbit’ movie.
Not that any of it is played remotely straight. As he’s demonstrated many times over in his previous films and TV series, Will Gluck is determined to prove to audiences just how many other movies and pop culture obsessions he’s aware of. The ‘Peter Rabbit’ movie piles winks and references on top of each other, cracking jokes about jokes for adults while also tossing in endless rounds of CGI slapstick to pander to the kids. It’s an onslaught of everything tiresome about contemporary mainstream family films. The recognizable brand that sells the film is barely represented beyond the token names, characters, and designs. The pop culture jokes already feel dated. The physical gags are pandering. The effects are pretty, but lack character. Even the celebrity voice cast (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley show up as Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail) feel absolutely wasted, except for James Corden, who’s so annoying that it’s hard not to side with the evil farmers that want rid of him.
Despite the parade of annoyances within this ‘Peter Rabbit’, the film has a few saving graces. Gleeson proves to be a surprisingly effective physical comedian, and his relationship with Rose Byrne is unexpectedly effective. Both performers are supremely overqualified for their gigs, and Gluck works well enough with them that you can’t help but wish he was making a purely live-action movie rather than this CGI hybrid. The comedic anarchy that makes up most of the movie might fall flat, but the whole story does end in a delightful place that slowly starts to resemble the source material more and more.
‘Peter Rabbit’ isn’t an abject failure. In fact, many passages suggest a far better adaptation that could have been. That often makes sitting through the rough stuff even more irritating, but at least this movie isn’t completely devoid of merit like all of those ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ disasters. That’s something.