The dizzying speed at which Peter Rabbit and the camera move along at the opening of the new film based upon the classic stories by Beatrix Potter makes it abundantly clear that this is not your grandfather’s bunny. The characters may have been around for over a century, but there is nothing staid about them in “Peter Rabbit.” Oh no, this is a fast-moving, off-color joke spewing, laugh riot of a good time.
Directed by Will Gluck from a story and script from Gluck and Rob Lieber, “Peter Rabbit” is surprising not just in its whiz-bang speed, but in the fact that this sort of improbable update works brilliantly. It is a “kids movie” with enough going on in diverse enough a fashion that it will please many an audience. Some of the jokes may be a little off-color, some of the moments are indeed tense, and there is a questionable scene or two, but as a whole it still works very well indeed.
It is also true that this take on Peter himself, who is voiced by James Corden, may go over the top a little too much here and there—Peter is reminiscent of the chipmunk, Alvin—but everything is saved by the perfection that is Domhnall Gleeson’s Thomas McGregor. Inheriting the farm from Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), Thomas moves in so that he can fix it up and sell it. That would go well save for the fact that he ends up falling in love with the artist next door, Bea (Rose Byrne), who paints terrible pictures… except for the ones of the bunnies, which are quite spectacular efforts (and look like the classic images of them, her name being Bea and all). Thomas and Peter, however, don’t see eye-to-eye and much of the conflict stems from that butting of heads.
The above paragraph largely makes the entire story out to be obvious and mundane, and while it is most definitely the former, it is certainly not the latter. It is charming and lovely.
Although his star has risen greatly portraying Hux in the new “Star Wars” films (perhaps you also recognize him from “Ex Machina” or “The Revenant” or “American Made” or as Bill Weasley), several years ago Gleeson proved his ability to perform as an unlikely romantic comedy love interest with “About Time.” Yes, “Star Wars” may show his ability to do both dramatic moments and funny ones, but “About Time” combines those with offering him a romance as well and”Peter Rabbit” does the same.
Those who have been following his career know that watching Gleeson work is nothing short of marvelous. Whether it’s making a First Order general both amusing and scary or convincing an audience he can travel in time or working opposite a CGI rabbit, Gleeson is wonderfully adept at pulling in the viewer and bring them over to his side. Consequently, rather than the predictable plot of “Peter Rabbit” coming off as saccharine, one roots for McGregor to both find a way to get along with Peter and to be worthy of Bea’s affection.
To that end, Byrne is also absolutely winning in her role. One can’t quite imagine how Bea can be so terrible a painter in all areas but her animal work, but that issue lies with the script, not Byrne. When it comes to her interactions with Peter, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley), Benjamin (Colin Moody), and the rest of the animals, she is every bit Gleeson’s equal, offering love where he offers fury.
As for one of the questionable moments mentioned earlier, there is a bit about Thomas having an allergy that is used to poor effect. One can almost imagine what sort of joke Gluck was going for, attempting to thread the needle between making fun of allergies and the need to use an EpiPen, but it does not succeed.
It is true that I have, by and large, focused on the live-action humans here rather than the CGI bunnies (and pigs and frogs and ducks and what have you), but I will note that those elements are successful as well. Yes, Corden does perhaps go a little too far on occasion, but he is never quite as grating as Alvin and one still wants Peter and his family to find the delectable garden veggies they so fervently desire. By and large, the animation is successful and the interactions with humans work.
“Peter Rabbit” is a wholly impossible tale, one with ridiculous flourishes and perhaps a little too much zany, but it is also exceptionally fun. The rabbits are engaging, Peter’s bad behavior is never overly annoying, Rose Byrne is quite good, and Domhnall Gleeson is nothing short of spectacular.
Between “Paddington 2” and “Peter Rabbit” opening in the first few weeks of 2018, the bar has been set very high for “kids’ movies” this year. If it continues at this pace, it could be quite a memorable year for the genre.
photo credit: Sony Pictures