Peter Rabbit doesn’t reach the lofty heights of similar projects such as the Paddington and Babe films, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasantly entertaining diversion.
Peter Rabbit, a hybrid live-action/CGI adaption of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, is enjoyable but lightweight, most notable for its above average special effects and meta approach to its subject. Cameos by other Potter characters add value for ardent fans, while the slapstick humor and cute central romance between Rose Byrne’s Bea and Domhnall Gleeson’s Thomas McGregor will appeal to audiences unfamiliar with Peter Rabbit and friends.
The film itself is actually a sequel to Beatrix Potter’s story, taking place after Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail’s parents have both died and beginning with the death of evil Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill, unrecognizable). Peter and his siblings (along with cousin Benjamin) take ownership of Farmer McGregor’s home after his untimely death, but they find their temporary peace shattered when McGregor’s nephew Thomas inherits his lovely estate in England’s Lake District.
The rabbits, who are looked after by neighbor Bea, dislike Thomas from the start and grow to despise him when he begins to court Bea, who is unaware of his disdain for rabbits. Hijinks ensue, most involving an electrocution or explosion. The plot is flimsy, just robust enough to justify constant action.
Peter (James Corden) is an excellent digital creation, cartoonish and realistic all at once. His fellow rabbits have far less to do, though Daisy Ridley gets the best lines as the accident-prone Cotton-Tail. All of the animals are beautifully rendered, and director Will Gluck wisely allows them to be cartoonish rather than stick to straight realism. The film’s best laughs come when the animals perform in Looney Tunes-like fashion, such as when the hedgehog, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (hilariously voiced by singer Sia), electrocutes herself and sends quills flying in all directions or Piggling Bland’s (Ewen Leslie) frequent, unexpected vegetable binges.
Though the plot is predictable, it’s actually rather poignant when considering the real-life circumstances that inspired it. Potter bought a home near Lake Windermere following the tragic death of her lover Norman Warne. The Bea in the film has relatively recently moved to Windermere in order to pursue her art, and so her tentative romance with Thomas McGregor, her devotion to the rabbits and her love of the community around her makes beautiful and tragic sense when considering where her real-world counterpart was at that moment in her life. For her part, Byrne does excellent work with a relatively underwritten role, exuding warmth and whimsy and making both man and beast’s devotion to her entirely understandable.
Though the film is set in England’s Lake District, it was actually filmed on a set in Australia and utilized a lot of Australian talent. The settings may be lush, but it is often evident that the film was shot on a set rather than in the wild. Given that Potter is so associated with England and the Lake District in particular, this seems like a missed opportunity.
There is a Home Alone vibe to much of the action, as Peter and friends sabotage McGregor’s house with rakes, rotting vegetables, electric shocks, explosives and more, and while this action is inherently violent it is also playful. The natural mischief in Corden’s voice helps minimize the violence, and his precocious delivery contrasts perfectly with Gleeson’s high-strung, rigid performance. Gleeson does a great job with a one-note part, and succeeds in making McGregor both an effective villain and a believable love-interest for the saintly Bea. His lanky body is perfect for physical comedy, allowing for a mixture of grace and clumsiness that helps in making the action surprising and relatively believable.
Peter Rabbit doesn’t reach the lofty heights of similar projects such as the Paddington and Babe films, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a pleasantly entertaining diversion. Working with such legendary source material, the film effectively pays homage to both Beatrix Potter’s work and the author herself.