A delightful, smartly written, and sometimes uproariously funny diversion the entire family can enjoy, the live action and animation hybrid Peter Rabbit is much better than one might expect. Deftly playing to a kiddie crowd, nostalgic millenials, and savvy parents at the same time, Peter Rabbit might only bear momentary, passing resemblances to the beloved works of character creator Beatrix Potter, but it also delivers its central message about the nature of selfishness so well that people might actually talk about what they just saw after the film is over instead of dismissing it as light entertainment.
Sport coat wearing Peter Rabbit (voiced nicely by James Corden) – often accompanied by his younger sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie, who also narrates), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley) and his cousin, Benjamin (Colin Moody) – has spent his life trying to break into the heavily fortified, countryside garden of mean, old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), and liberate his property of all of its delicious fruits and veggies. One day, the old man suddenly drops dead, and Peter and his family think their days of scavenging and stealing food are over. But Peter’s dreams of the good life are dashed by the arrival of the equally boorish Thomas McGregor (Domnhall Gleeson), a recently fired toy store manager from London keen on fixing up his estranged uncle’s property and selling it, returning to the city promptly with his profits to open his own retail shop. Thomas and Peter engage in a battle of wills and wits to control the land that only grows more complicated when the human starts to have eyes for next door neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne), a kindly painter who happens to be Peter’s closest friend and confidant.
Not every family film with literary roots can aspire to the comic, creative, and dramatic heights of Paddington or Paddington 2, but director and co-writer Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends With Benefits) shows a similar understanding of how to balance slapstick, wit, and the tugging of heart strings in equal measure. Not every joke in Peter Rabbit hits the bulls-eye, but the ones that do are side-splitting for both kids and their guardians. More importantly, one doesn’t need to be under a certain age range to enjoy Peter Rabbit, but bringing a kid along could certainly elevate the experience.
The biggest attraction of Peter Rabbit might be the film’s overall sense of visual ingenuity. Not only is the countryside setting (which is actually Australia substituting for England) attractive and colourful without being garish, but the animators have done a spectacular job of rendering Peter and his extended family into the real world. While the bunnies can do some crazy things that real rabbits can’t, when viewed up close they look remarkably realistic. These CGI critters play nicely and seamlessly into Gluck’s penchant for elaborate sight gags, including a killer reveal involving an impossibly large pair of pants, a lightning quick cup and ball gag involving some overturned planters, and a very funny set piece where Peter and his sisters attempt to rescue Benjamin from the cab of a moving truck. Adults probably won’t be fooled into thinking Peter Rabbit exists in reality, but I could see kids little kids buying into it.
A good deal of selling the reality of Peter Rabbit falls to Gleeson, in whom Gluck couldn’t ask for a better collaborator. Gleeson has proven as of late to have a gift for comedy – evidenced in both Star Wars: The Last Jedi and A Futile and Stupid Gesture – but he rarely gets called upon to throw all caution to the wind and act truly silly. Unafraid and egoless, Gleeson hurls himself around Gluck’s movie like a human ping-pong ball, essentially taking bumps and selling a creature that won’t be put into the film until post-production. To get a sense of the difficulty of Gleeson’s intensely physical performance, picture the robbers in Home Alone inflicting pain upon themselves because the child thwarting them isn’t actually there and neither are the traps. Not only does Gleeson nail the physical demands of the role, but he also finds a way to maintain McGregor’s sense of droll wit and arrogance throughout.
Gleeson’s McGregor and Corden’s Peter are perfect foils for each other, and Gluck lays out this comparison with great subtlety and sometimes with a darkly comedic touch. McGregor and Peter are entitled, spoiled, big thinking brats with enormous egos that are only matched by the size of their intimacy and abandonment issues. That Gluck frames Peter and McGregor’s battle for the farm and Bea’s affections as a romantic comedy isn’t merely Gluck sticking to his strengths as a writer and filmmaker, but to illustrate a larger point about the characters. The only way that the war between these two will end is when they realize that they’re more alike than they think, and by framing the story in this chosen manner, Gluck has created a film where kids and adults can have serious conversations about learning to be selfless. I know that might be a lot to read into with a film that trades mostly in slapstick, but the potential is certainly there.
It’s not all perfect. Outside of a few key nods and references, Potter purists will bristle at just how far of a departure Peter’s new adventures are from their source material. Gluck’s penchant for fourth-wall breaking winks and nods feels out of place in a story that’s already balancing sincerity and silliness, and a running gag involving a chorus of birds updating recognizable pop songs with leporine lyrics feels pandering in a way that the rest of the film has been actively avoiding. And while kids will likely be more entertained by the cute and whimsical bunny shenanigans, and adults will be more taken by the work being put in by Gleeson, Neill, and Byrne, it’s a pretty safe bet that viewers of all ages will come away equally entertained by Peter Rabbit.
Peter Rabbit opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, February 9, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Peter Rabbit:
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