As a child I was a rabid reader of the “Peter Rabbit” book series, so I consider myself the very definition of a tough customer when it comes to Beatrix Potter’s beloved, iconic animal characters. With the current abysmal track record of films aimed at children, I was pleasantly surprised with how fresh, sweet, and warm this live action / animated film is. The story has been updated and tweaked a bit to fit in with today’s society, but purists will be pleased to see all of their old favorites show up in true form to their personalities (like Jemima Puddle-Duck, Jeremy Fisher, Mr. Tod, and Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail).
Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) is as crochety and as mean as ever, always trying to catch and cook Peter in a pie (the same fate the rabbit’s father met; it’s important to note for sensitive little ones that this part of the story is told in a very emotionally upsetting yet tragically beautiful fashion early on, using the classic watercolor book illustrations).
After a garden accident, Mr. McGregor’s fastidious nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) leaves his job in the Harrod’s toy department in London and moves to the country. He quickly falls for his warm-hearted artist neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), herself a huge friend to the animals. A rival develops between the man and Peter (James Corden) as they fight for the affections of Bea.
The contemporary comedy is frequently clever and sometimes annoying, with stupid pratfalls to appeal to the kids as well as a grating overuse of pop music to keep it peppy. Gleeson is terrific and very funny here, giving a delightfully exaggerated comedic turn that nearly outshines a similar role from his dad Brendan in this year’s delightful “Paddington 2.” Corden becomes overkill early on, voicing the mischievous rabbit with a great annoyance of too much forced gusto, and the supporting voice actors (Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie) are unfortunately given little to do.
There are many blink and you’ll miss it nods to the original series as well as some terrifically sly and smart jokes thrown in the mix, including a truly inspired bit with the neighborhood rooster.
If the early bit that showcases the story of the death of Peter’s dad isn’t enough to emotionally get you, there’s also far too much violent slapstick where our furry friends are depicted in quite precarious situations that cross the line from funny into disturbing (like when Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) is stuffed into a sack and nearly thrown off a bridge to drown in the water below and when Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia) bites a high-powered electric fence until nearly all of her quills shoot out of her back). This film travels to the dark side more than a few times and is appropriately rated PG.
Despite its flaws, “Peter Rabbit” is more charming than irritating and it makes for an amusing evening at the movies for the whole family. This isn’t a game changer nor is it destined to become a classic, but it’s pleasantly charismatic and worth seeing for Gleeson’s performance.