FILM REVIEW: Modern Spin on PETER RABBIT Bounces Into a Good Time
When Beatrix Potter wrote the now classic children’s tale Peter Rabbit, she could not have anticipated that the Edwardian buttoned up protagonist would one day become an irreverent, cursing, and wild little bunny. Then again, modernity waits for no one and leaves no stone unturned. The modern adaptation of the story, only loosely faithful to the original outlines of Potter’s take, is an effective, at times hilarious, and wildly entertaining film.
You may be familiar with the life of Peter Rabbit: he and his three sisters are orphaned (thanks to a shock-full sequence that makes you laugh uncomfortably) and live outside the garden of Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), a crotchety old man hell-bent on capturing and soup-ifying Peter’s ilk. They are protected by the sweet-faced Bea (Rose Byrne), but they are in for a surprise when old man McGregor passes away and leaves the estate to his stuck up, neat-freak obsessive grandnephew Thomas (Star Wars’ Domhnall Gleeson). Thomas is a younger, more determined version of the villain from the original stories, cast aside quickly in this film, and will put up a bigger fight to Peter’s antics and those of his animal buddies.
When the trailer for Peter Rabbit hit, purists complained that the refined rabbit of old was being chucked aside for a rambunctious, profane and cheeky copy. Potter may well have had no interest in the 2018 version of her beloved bunny, but, to be fair, 2018 perhaps has little interest in hers. So while Peter Rabbit may cause heartburn to fixated originalists, it brings laughter and amusement to the rest of us.
The tone of the film, by Annie’ director Will Gluck, is decidedly British and outlandish. It is led mostly by physical and slapstick humor, with Peter and his friends wreaking havoc on the McGregor estate while vacant and then on McGregor himself when he is present. Peter’s three sisters are voiced by Daisy Ridley and Margot Robbie (as well as Elizabeth Debicki) and are strong supporting characters that steal just enough runtime. There is also a bevy of highly-amusing side characters, a pig who always purports to be on a diet, a moose that cannot help but get in front of traffic, and birds that are there for target practice. Your kids will love them and you will be laughing as well.
But the star billing belongs to James Corden, who gives believable life to the lovable rabbit, excellent comedic timing, and enough emotional range to make you fall quickly for the character. Ms. Byrne is falling perilously into the habit of playing herself, while Mr. Gleeson once more shows his immense talent as an actor by portraying the compulsive version of McGregor to stunning realism and engrossing emotion.
If anything bad can be said about Peter Rabbit (other than the obvious, which is that like in all movies of this nature, some of the jokes inevitably fall flat), it is that its conventional plot outline is needlessly predictable and telegraphed from the start. The relationship between Bea and Thomas, in particular, is easily foreseen, but, to its credit, remains both ancillary and central enough to not be a distraction. Peter remains squarely at the center of the story, and that is as it should be.
Adapting a well-known product can be a tricky endeavor. And playing around with a classic character is even riskier. But the filmmakers behind Peter Rabbit pulled it off because they are simply out to make you laugh with the type of impious humor that they know resonates with modern audiences. People getting clocked on the head, ironic twists, that is what audiences of today like—not stuffy prim and proper role models—and that is what the movie delivers. It is only a surprise, and a slight disappointment, that there is no joke about reproducing like rabbits.
On top of it, the film exhibits the welcome self-awareness that distinguishes successful kids’ films from less interesting ones. It reminds itself as much as anyone else not to explain the punch line of jokes, and it cleverly mocks its own existence by inserting the word anthropomorphic into the melee. The result is a boatload of jumping fun that maintains its tone and pace throughout, another difficult task for many movies aimed primarily at children. And while it never reaches new heights or become a classic film, it never tries to. It aims for the upper middle and lands there comfortably.