Peter Rabbit is a classic literary hero beloved by children and adults alike. Author Beatrix Potter created a timeless character, laced her narrative with sardonic humor, and became a world-wide sensation. She refused to give up the rights to Walt Disney over marketing issues, but was the first to exploit commercial merchandising possibilities with the stories and characters. That said, had she lived long enough to be pitched director Will Gluck’s PETER RABBIT, she may have thought twice. Assuredly, it’s cute and cuddly, but this is #NotMyPeterRabbit – and I’m left wondering, who is this actually for?
If the opening of PETER RABBIT seems familiar to you, you’re remembering LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Gluck’s opening matches Brad Silberling’s film beat for beat. Birds sing a little happy song (one of the film’s long-running gags) and are interrupted by Margot Robbie’s narrator, stating similar sentiments. Our titular protagonist’s (voiced by James Corden) impulsive recklessness and cocky attitude are always getting him into trouble. Thankfully, he’s found a kind caretaker in Bea (Rose Byrne), a preservationist who paints and romps around the quaint countryside in flowy casualwear. But once Old Mr. Macgregor (Sam Neil) suddenly dies, Peter assumes he, his triplet sisters Flopsy (voiced by Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (voiced by Daisy Ridley), cousin Benjamin (voiced by Colin Moody), and the rest of the wildlife of Windemere will have the run of the garden. Wrong! Mr. Macgregor’s estranged grand-nephew, Timothy (Domhnall Gleeson) has inherited the place – and he’s even meaner and more spiteful than his great uncle! He’s just suffered a mental breakdown and has been dismissed to the country house to get it ready for sale. Hijinks and hilarity ensue.
While PADDINGTON and its sequel took great care to retain the spirit of author Michael Bond’s creation, PETER RABBIT’s modern polish doesn’t bear much resemblance to author Beatrix Potter’s headstrong trickster. As Robbie’s narration winks and nods to the audience, here he is “the rabbit with a blue coat and no pants,” re-envisioned as a smarmy rabble-rouser. Only during the few hand-drawn animated segments, directed by Rob Coleman, does Potter’s spirit shine through her illustrations. There are darker subtle facets to this Peter’s actions: He doesn’t just get into misadventures due to his mischievous and disobedient spirit, he’s out for revenge – sorta. The filmmakers don’t follow through with this thread. His arc morphing from selfish to self-less is on the predictable side – and it’s not an effortless transition because of the filmmakers’ lackluster stabs at creativity. That’s fine for younger viewers, but for adults it comes out a bit pat. Peter’s journey also sees him wandering into oedipal territory once Timothy starts dating Bea, stealing away her attention from him.
The biggest problem plaguing the picture – much like the constantly-changing pop soundtrack that feels like the music supervisor trying to find a radio station – is how the filmmakers handle tonal changes. They have trouble balancing the dark, scary moments (like when Peter, or Benjamin get caught) with the lighter, adorable moments (like when the bunnies apologize to one another). Sentiments about embracing character flaws and sharing affection are trite rather than lasting. They seem absolutely terrified of letting any emotional moment play out to the point it feels genuine or earned. Touching moments are constantly interrupted or hand-waved in favor of a quick joke, causing a break in the momentum. The filmmakers’ lack of confidence causes them to shoot themselves in the foot, which leads into another trapping.
Instead of making the jokes work for everyone at once, the humor is segregated. Gluck and co-writer Rob Lieber’s script relies half on self-aware, self-reflexive gags geared towards adults, and the other half on loud, raucous pratfalls and action for the kids (which Gleeson should win special honors for his legitimately impressive stunt acting). Peter and Timothy’s violent, antagonistic relationship is akin to that of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. While that’s perfectly fine as a stand-alone ingredient, it doesn’t successfully fit within the tonal spectrum of the film, making it a little challenging to buy these two adversaries’ inevitable character turns. Plus, the two long-running gags also break the “comedy rule of threes.”
Despite the blights, there are some good “bits.” Similar to PADDINGTON 2’s THE UNTOUCHABLES reference, PETER RABBIT carves out room to utilize the most famous gag from BEVERLY HILLS COP. It’s admirable how many animal puns and spins on cliché phrases they manage to work in – like “deer in the headlights” and “putting lipstick on a pig.” Peter even breaks the 4th wall at one point. These techniques speak directly to my sense of humor and bring the overall score up. However, not quite enough to save things.
PETER RABBIT opens on February 9.