March 2024

Peter Rabbit (2018)

DIRECTOR: Will Gluck

CAST: Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, David Wenham, Sia


Devoted fans of Beatrix Potter’s gentle children’s stories will likely be appalled at how it’s been souped up with Home Alone-esque action, sometimes crude humor (though nothing that pushes the family friendly envelope very hard), and busy pop soundtrack, but Peter Rabbit keeps the action and comedy flying fast and furious enough that it will probably entertain small children while being at least passably enjoyable for the adults accompanying them.  It’s not the most high-brow family friendly entertainment to be found, but parents on the lookout for something to take their children to that’s not an endurance contest for themselves could do worse.

We start out in more-or-less familiar territory, with flamboyant troublemaking ringleader Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) leading his siblings (voices of Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, and Elizabeth Debicki) in infiltrating and robbing the garden of the crotchety Old Man McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill), who previously made pie out of their father and intends to do the same to Peter.  But when victory is snatched from McGregor’s cold dead fingers by a heart attack, Peter declares the garden—and the accompanying country estate—open to all, and days of wild partying ensues.  But Peter’s declaration of victory in the long-running rabbits vs. McGregor war is too hasty.  In distant London, McGregor’s grand-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), a manic perfectionist, is passed over for a promotion and his ensuing meltdown, in which he goes on an over-the-top rampage destroying his meticulously-arranged store, leaves him unemployed.  Salvation comes when he learns he’s inherited his grand-uncle’s estate, which he intends to sell for a quick profit (clean freak Thomas despises the messy, wildlife-riddled countryside).  Thus commences an ever-escalating war between McGregor 2.0 and Peter and his gang, a war that’s only further inflamed when Thomas strikes up a budding romance with the rabbits’ beloved human friend, Bea (Rose Byrne).  Along the way, Peter might be forced to face his impure motives—jealousy of losing his surrogate mother figure—when things get out of control, and Bea might open Thomas’ cold heart to the outdoors.

Director Will Gluck has previously showed an aptitude for comedy with Easy A and Friends With Benefits, and in between the facile Home Alone-esque hijinks, there’s a fair share of witty one-liners and double entendres (the innuendo isn’t too risque, but some of the humor is clearly aimed at the parents more than their probably oblivious children), along with a Greek chorus of sorts with a flock of sparrows who pop up periodically to provide synchronized musical numbers.  Rose Byrne’s “Bea” is a not-so-subtle stand-in for Beatrix Potter, and the movie throws in a cute homage to Potter’s original stories when we briefly switch to a fully animated sequence based on Potter’s drawings relating the backstory of Peter’s family and their feud with Old Man McGregor.  It’s a nice tribute to its original source material, even if the movie spends the rest of the time cheerfully flouting it with decidedly modernized souped-up shenanigans.  Familiar Potter characters like Mr. Tod and Tommy Brock make small appearances, though they’re more shout-outs to the source material than true relevant roles here.  The CGI is sometimes exceptional, with much detail devoted to the rabbits’ lifelike eyes and individual strands of fur, etc., and the emotions they project.

Alas, the level of wit in the smaller moments and one-liners too often takes a backseat to more simple-minded, lazy laughs especially when the movie is entirely taken over by montages of Domhnall Gleeson falling down stairs, ambushed with traps, and generally getting smacked around like Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in Home Alone.  For those who weary of the antics in that movie, it’ll get old here too, especially with lazy physical comedy like Gleeson getting blasted across a room by an electrified door, then marching straight back to it and wash, rinse, repeat.  (Einstein’s quote defining insanity as repeating the same action and expecting a different result springs to mind).  Kids will cackle while viewers wishing the movie put a little more effort into its humor might roll their eyes.  The script also tries to have its cake and eat it too, leaving poor Gleeson gamely trying to do something with a schizophrenic character who whiplashes between romantically wooing Rose Byrne and ruling over his garden with an iron fist and chasing Peter and company around with a maniacal intensity that makes us feel like we’re watching some SNL skit about what Star Wars‘ General Hux would be like as a gardener.  Does the movie want us to boo hiss Thomas and laugh at his expense when he gets tortured like a Home Alone bad guy, or root for him to romance Bea?  Or…both?  The movie can’t seem to make up its mind whether we’re supposed to see him as the “villain” or not, and tries haphazardly to have it both ways.  Also, the narrative’s ultimate destination—Peter and Thomas realize the errors of their respective ways—isn’t exactly surprising or challenging, and the “why can’t we all just get along” end message feels a little trite and hollow considering the movie has been reveling in gleefully showing Thomas getting the crap beat out of him for laughs up to that point.

Being the principal live-action human chasing and getting beat up by CGI rabbits seems like a bit of a degrading role for a busy up-and-comer one would hope could get better parts than this, but Domhnall Gleeson (sporting “villainous” black hair that looks distractingly unnatural) gamely runs manically around snarling, screaming, and flailing his way through an all-over-the-place character that alternately recalls a romantic comedy lead, General Hux, and a bumbling villain out of a Home Alone movie.  Rose Byrne is suitably sweet in the bland role of his animal-loving love interest.  Of the other live-action roles, Sam Neill has a virtually unrecognizable opening cameo as Old Man McGregor, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste has a small role as Thomas’ boss.  British comedian James Corden brings his dry humor to Peter.  Some notable names fill out other voice roles, including current Oscar nominee Margot Robbie and Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, but perhaps apart from Corden, none of their voices stand out as recognizable (Robbie, Ridley, and Elizabeth Debicki’s three sisters’ incessant bickering and talking over each other makes them all kind of blend together, though Robbie also does double duty as the narrator).

At the bottom line, the only relevant question for parents about Peter Rabbit might be: will this movie entertain my child without making me want to shoot myself?  The answer is probably yes.  It has a frantic whiz-bang pace, some witty one-liners, lots of physical comedy kids will probably cackle at, and ultimately a “can’t we all just get along?” message—after it gleefully satisfies its quota of beating up the hapless more-or-less “villain”—and the CGI is nice and the rabbits and assorted friends are suitably cute.  It’s just a little disappointing that “family friendly” too often has to be synonymous with lazy obvious humor and entries like Babe (sort of Peter Rabbit‘s higher-brow cousin) that have slightly more sophisticated aspirations are few and far between.

* * 1/2