First and foremost, Peter Rabbit is very concerned with letting you know that it’s not a regular kids’ movie – it’s a cool kids’ movie. The knowing asides in this live-action/animated mishmash are present from the jump and call to mind a family-friendly version of Family Guy’s fourth wall-breaking cutaway gags. One wonders if all that time telling the audience how chill and smart, and funny the movie is wouldn’t have been better spent on, say, actually making the movie genuinely, unironically smart and funny.
In this modern update of the classic children’s tales The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Peter (James Corden), his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley), and their cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) take on the next generation of the McGregor family. After the elder Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) meets an untimely end (for which Peter morosely claims credit), this young Mr. Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) moves into his great-uncle’s house in the country with the intention of selling it. In the meantime, he has to undo the damage from the woodland creatures, who had been enjoying the place, and finds a rival in Peter, who feels territorial over both the garden and animal-loving next-door neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne.)
The fact that Peter Rabbit, which succeeds remarkably well at blending live-action with its two different styles of animation, includes a running gag of anthropomorphic creatures calling out their character flaws and labelling them as such is entirely emblematic of this movie’s attitude. By the time you get to the first line of this sort, it’s not even all that surprising. The slapstick humor, including the unusually high number of crotch shots (even for a kids’ movie) played very well with the children in my screening. The jokes work when they’re told in earnest, but unfortunately the irreverent charm doesn’t seem to extend to Peter. Early on, Peter Rabbit sends up musical numbers in favor of devil-may-care jerkitude. The move has no real point other than to call out other animated movies, since one of the best scenes is a delightful, full-on group dance number of woodland creatures. (Thankfully Corden doesn’t sing until the closing credits.)
Fans of the original tale by Beatrix Potter will recognize plenty here—the use of Peter’s jacket as a scarecrow, the elder Mr. McGregor, appearances by Jemima Puddle-Duck (a moonlighting Byrne) and of course Peter’s father’s fate in a rabbit pie—though there’s plenty of updating too, with a contemporary soundtrack that even features some adaptations made especially for the movie. One of the best sequences is a flashback about Peter’s parents, animated in the style of Potter’s original drawings, as opposed to the more lifelike animation of the present-day critters. Those drawings surface again in the diversionary artwork of Byrne’s other character, the enjoyable and live-action Bea (surely a reference to Potter’s first name), who loves the wildlife, particularly the rabbits, and thinks that Peter is sweet and innocent.
It’s unfortunate that in this adaptation, Peter Rabbit crosses the line from brazen, rebellious little rabbit to outright jerk. He lies, takes his vendetta way too far before the narrative recognizes it, brags constantly, and is mean to sweet Benjamin Bunny, his cousin and partner in crime. There are so many magnetic characters in the animal world—his sweet, dumb, dutiful cousin; the refined pig who can’t help but pig out; the faux-vicious party animal fox; scene-stealing confused hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia)—but our hero isn’t one of them.
He’s a jerk, seemingly modelled after the obnoxious, scene-stealing diva version of himself that James Corden plays during his “Crosswalk the Musical” sketches. While he learns some lessons along the way like any good protagonist, Peter’s braggadocio surpasses that of Wes Anderson’s styling of the eponymous Fantastic Mr. Fox, but without Clooney’s charm or the humility and pathos that story instills in him over the course of his journey. In other words, this Peter Rabbit is Alvin (of Chipmunk fame), but he’s trying to murder Dave and we’re supposed to feel bad for him because of his tragic backstory. Your mileage may vary, based largely on your tolerance for James Corden.
There’s plenty of clever humor here—some of the best scenes are when the animals let loose on their own, whether ransacking the garden, or partying human-style in the house. A great recurring gag involves the animals incorrectly interpreting the human world based on their own experience, like when the rabbits decide that the workers in the English equivalent of a Lowes or Home Depot must be hedgehogs, because like Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, they also wear aprons.
Gleeson has a rather thankless role of being the famed Mr. McGregor’s great-nephew Thomas, the cad that Peter and company mock mercilessly throughout. But Gleeson brings a level of charm and humor that is quite winning, even as we wrinkle our noses at his persnickety preferences. He pairs well with Byrne, and his odd brand of dweebishness charms the audience as well as her, from his intention to drink toilet water to his London bird-watching log, which is just the word “pigeon” over and over again. Gleeson tries rather gamely to make so many scenes with animated animals look reasonable, which is a tall order during his physical hand-to-hand fights with the bunnies.
There’s a pretty dark undercurrent to the story, which the movie isn’t shy about: McGregor is trying to murder these sweet little bunnies, and they’re trying to murder him too. In an early scene, Peter pokes the eyeball of a dead body, and it’s a jokey gross-out move that sets the tone for what this movie finds endearing and funny. It’s the sort of weird, kid-movie reality that bothers adults more than children and will land the movie on the 2038 equivalent of a Buzzfeed listicle about “10 Beloved Movies from the 2010s that are Totally Dark.”
While many of the supporting characters are charming and do their best to make up for Peter, his sisters were a missed opportunity. For the first hour, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail are virtually indistinguishable from one another, aside from their tiny bunny clothes and the fact that one of them is oldest (but good luck remembering which one until much later). It’s remarkable that the sisters have no defining character traits for so long, considering the amount of screen time they get, the talented actors portraying them, and how specific the characters become in the latter half of the movie, especially the delightfully weird Cotton-Tail. This feels like a mistake of editing, and a misguided belief that more arrogant/Corden-styled jokes was just the ticket, rather than fleshing out the consistently funny and charming rabbit sisters, two things Peter was not.
Ultimately, there are a lot of things working in Peter Rabbit’s favor, despite its dedication to dickishness. But in a world where Coco took theaters worldwide by storm and Paddington 2 enchanted all comers, there are kinder, funnier, better animated worlds to spend your time in.