By Dan Cava
February 9, 2018
Peter Rabbit reworks Beatrix Potter’s tiny tale with modernized storytelling, a perfect cast, and a winter’s stash of hilarious comedy. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the most devoted of Potter purists having anything other than a family-friendly blast with this picture.
Beatrix Potter’s original stories are a collection of brief, furry fable with simple narrative setups and gentle lessons. The original “Tale of Peter Rabbit” is a very straightforward parable of naughtiness: Peter’s mom tells him not to go into Old Man McGregor‘s garden, he goes anyway, he almost dies, he runs out exhausted. Listen to your mom, Peter.
Director Will Gluck’s clever cinematic expansion is something of a sequel. When we catch up with Peter and his siblings, both of his parents have died, one of them at the hands of the aging McGregor. Peter continues to impetuously raid his garden, putting himself and his family constant danger. But old McGregor suddenly dies, and is replaced by his younger city-groomed nephew Thomas, gamely played by Domhall Gleason. The fastidious Thomas has been unfairly passed over for a promotion and wants to flip his newly inherited country estate around for an easy profit, but he is endlessly delayed by the havoc of Peter and Company, and by the loveliness of his beatific neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne, all air and grace).
The story from there bounds along joyfully. The inevitable war between Peter and Thomas swiftly and hilariously escalates. Peter gets bolder and Thomas gets desperate and multiple hijinks ensue. As he often has in previous works (Easy A, the recent revamp of Annie), Gluck keeps things bright and clear. We would understand what’s happening with the sound turned off, and his style nicely complements the cheerful story and the onslaught of humor, while leaving space for a quiet thread of tenderness.
I appreciated the writer’s care in building empathy for the characters, especially Thomas McGregor. The absence of a total villain helps the movie arrive at some genuinely moving resolutions, with the kind of empathic lessons I was glad to share with my children. The takeaways are a touch more complex than the elegant morals of Beatrix Potter, but the filmmakers left that option behind the moment they committed to making a feature-length film.
Led by James Corden’s affable lead performance as Peter and aided greatly by wonderfully expressive animation, the voice cast seems to be having the time of their lives. Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, and Elizabeth Debicki voice Peter’s triplet sisters (listening to them squabble over birth order is one of the film’s many solid through-line jokes). Almost all of the major live action actors do double voice duty for supporting characters. There’s a coziness in that choice that makes the whole thing feel, appropriately, like a family affair.
The filmmakers wisely grease the rails with joke after joke. Rob Lieber’s screenplay caters to the strengths of both it’s director and it’s cast. Gluck has a wonderful touch for zaniness and physical comedy, and the live action actors throw themselves into the slapstick. Domhall Gleason takes the brunt of pratfalls with aplomb. In one scene alone he sets what must be the record for “most stepped-on broomsticks to the face.” A good deal of humor also springs from gentle pokes at our expectations of this most innocent of genres. The movie opens with a quartet of songbirds melodiously welcoming us to the film, only to be interrupted and scattered by a barreling Peter on the run. “This is not that kind of story,” Margot Robbie‘s narrator sweetly intones.
Indeed. One of the film’s greatest strengths may come to be its one drawback down the road. The tone of Peter Rabbit (particularly the jokes and song choices) is perfectly calibrated to 2018 audiences, and for that very reason it’s hard to know if this adaptation will have much of a shelf life. Paddington and it’s recent (criminally under-attended) sequel are textbooks on how to transcend the vibe of the moment, while the once cutting edge Shrek films already feel like a relic of the early 2000s.
James Corden’s characterization sits at the center of the story, and his Peter seems more designed around Corden’s self-referential style (“I’m headstrong, that’s my character flaw.”) than pulled from the pages of a classic children’s book. It all works nicely on its own terms; but while 2018’s Peter Rabbit is definitely the one we want right now, but it may not be the one we need in ten years.
Still, a good time at the movies is a good time at the movies, and Peter Rabbit is just that. I have little personal history with the original stories so I’ll let some other critics carry that pitchfork. Legacy questions aside, what we have here is an enormously entertaining family movie that both kids and adults are likely to love. I laughed, and my five-year-old laughed and we were never bored. It’s February. I don’t know what else to ask for.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5