Growing up I was heavily exposed to the story of Peter Rabbit. In fact, it was probably one of the most notable children’s stories of my childhood. I knew one day the popular character would get the cinematic treatment, but when I saw the commercial for the new film I couldn’t help but shutter. This didn’t look like the Peter Rabbit I grew up with. This looked stupid. But it was either this or “Fifty Shades Freed” this weekend and…well I wasn’t going to the later. So, I walked in to the theater ready for disappointment and to my surprise I was wrong. It was funny, it had heart. It wasn’t perfect, but it was entertaining and memorable. Let’s dive a little deeper down the rabbit hole and see just how fun this film really is. This is my review of “Peter Rabbit”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
Based on the character and children’s tales by Beatrix Potter, “Peter Rabbit” stars its titular big earned bunny (played by James Corden) in his never ending battle against the McGregors. After presenting the story of his lost jacket we all know and love in it’s opening sequence, farmer McGregor dies leaving his farm to his relative, the obsessive and success-driven Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). Hoping to sell the property to earn money for his own toy shop, the new McGregor continues the fight against Peter and his family, consisting of Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Benjamin (Matt Lucas). The two sides find themselves even more at odds by their mutual connection and affection for Bea (Rose Byrne) an animal loving artist and McGregor’s neighbor. As the new McGregor and Peter battle it out in comedic fashion their rivalry takes a tole on their own lives and those they love forcing the two to come to grips with their inner demons and their own egos in the process.
“Peter Rabbit actually sports a relatively small cast with three main live-action actors and the rest voicing computer generated animals. Regardless all of them bring a certain charm to the screen that takes an otherwise bland film filled with pop-culture references and actually sells it pretty well, making each character feel unique and lively while also retaining the child-friendly image of the books. For the sake of this review I’ll be focusing on the animals and the live-action roles in two lump sums to sake space. Lets start with the rabbits.
The star of the show here is of course Peter Rabbit, played by James Corden. He is joined by the likes of Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki as Peter’s sisters Cottontail, Flopsy and Mopsy respectively and Matt Lucas a Benjamin Bunny, Peter’s cousin. These are the animals we spend most of our time with and each is very well developed, being given their own personalities and flaws that are actually parodied and referenced over the course of the film. Corden totally owns his role as Peter Rabbit, making the mischievous bunny a more modern take on the classic storybook character that oozes personality and charisma. Corden, being the comedic force that he is, sells every joke, reference, and fourth wall break with finesse and style reserved for only the greatest of on-screen comedians nowadays. This Peter feels fresh, but also maintains the same personality I remember imagining for the rabbit in my youth. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but I did and the more modern take on the character was surprisingly respectful of the source material without being too over the top or sticking too close to the original story to create its own identity. Corden turns in a controlled, yet completely out there take on Peter that helps him shine as the movie’s star and doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch when bringing the character into the modern world of cinema.
Corden is complimented by Ridley, Robbie, Debicki and Lucas who also create very memorable characters each with their own personalities. It’s not just the different colored coats that help these rabbits stand out. Each rabbit has their own vocal style, their own personalities, and their own charm about them that makes the entire Rabbit family a complete clan of well developed characters that are all equally fun to watch. Over the course of the film every one of the rabbits also turns in some great in-jokes about who they are and how they match the clichés of film and stories in general. This is an aspect of the film I’ll touch on later, but it’s worth noting here because the actors had to capture that sense of humor and self-awareness in their performances and they did so perfectly. Overall the Rabbit family feels like a great modern take on characters with classic charm and in an odd way they all feel retro and new at the same time.
As for the human characters, three main actors are presented in the story. Rose Byrne plays animal lover Bea who is more than just a love interest or animal ally. She’s plays an important part as the mediator in the story and while her character does leave some things to be desired, including a good backstory, Byrne seems to genuinely enjoy her role in the film, at times hamming up her “so-nice-she’s-annoying” characterization quite effectively. There’s also an odd sort of chemistry between her and Domhnall Gleeson who portrays Thomas McGregor, the younger McGregor who takes over when his uncle, played by an unrecognizable Sam Neill, dies. While it’s not perfect per say, the relationship between Gleeson and Byrne doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be completely believable. There’s always this strange space between the two and while it’s hard to determine whether this was on purpose or the result of bad casting, it kind of works. Bea and McGregor start off on different sides of the fence so to speak and slowly bond and it does seem very believable that McGregor is falling for Bea rather than using her to get rid of Peter and his family. While it’s a bit less believable that Bea is falling for him, I found the relationship and pairing to be acceptable if imperfect because even at its worst moments the duo play off the story and turn their odd-ball match into part of the narrative. Plus, they both do a bang-up job interacting with characters that aren’t really there which is a plus when CGI characters are heavily involved.
I’m pleased to say a lot worked in this movie, especially the comedy. “Peter Rabbit” contains numerous fourth wall breaks, in-jokes and cultural references that may not really be timeless, but in the moment work very well for the movie as a comedic experience. The script was amusing and well thought out in my opinion, giving James Corden and others a lot of great material to work with. I’d expect nothing less from director and co-writer Will Gluck who also lead 2014’s “Easy A” and the underrated 2011 comedy “Friends With Benefits”.
To touch on the fourth wall breaking moments, it’s ironic for me to hear that since the film’s release the movie has actually receive boycott threats for its tongue and cheek commentary towards issues like animal cruelty and food allergy hysteria but that’s part of the film’s charm. In fact in a highlight moment of the film James Corden, clearly speaking through Peter Rabbit as himself in an amazing fourth wall break, even looks at the audience and acknowledges the possibility of hate mail from such a joke. Smart family friendly jokes like this litter the script and made “Peter Rabbit” truly entertaining in so many ways. I belly laughed for three quarters of the film thanks to a combination of well timed puns, self-aware comments and even cutaways to nonsensical jokes that, even when repeated, work to perfection…seriously the rooster crowing jokes were absolutely hilarious.
Going back to the fourth-wall jokes, throughout the film the story breaks convention with a narrator acknowledging the story-book quality of the tale and Peter and his family often pointing out each other’s “character flaws” and their stereotypical characterizations to fit a cinematic story. Thankfully the film doesn’t overwhelm you with these jokes, steering away from straight up parody to instead feel like a film that is more self-aware than anything else. Again this is all due to impressive writing for a family film of this caliber and believable performances by the cast that make it all work. Maybe I’m biased because this is the kind of comedy I truly enjoy, but I’m the reviewer so I give the film props for making me laugh when others were probably like “oh, haha”.
I also have to compliment the CGI in the movie. It’s not perfect, but for something created by Sony Animation Peter Rabbit and his family are actually kind of believable. They’re not photorealistic, but they do feel like part of the scene and their motions and mannerisms are well defined making them look as if they could actually be in the real world. There are some odd moments here and there that are unpolished and messy and not every animal character is as well designed and realized as the rabbits themselves, but in the end it was acceptable and better than it probably deserved to be if I’m being honest. It’s definitely a lot better than the alternative of using real-life rabbits and we even get to see the art style of Beatrix Potter’s original stories worked into the narrative through flashbacks and other scenes which was a delightful sight for someone like me searching for that sense of nostalgia connected to the original story.
I can’t move on without addressing how the movie handled the legacy of Peter Rabbit and while this film is VERY modernized, Peter does feel like the character we came to love in our youths. He has a modern touch but that’s kind of what he needed. It worked with “Paddington” and it kind of works here as Peter is reimagined as a rambunctious and mischievous ego trip who doesn’t learn his lessons. He’s the same lovable bunny we all know and love, just with a fresh coat of paint. All in all I don’t think the film does absolute justice to the source material, but it doesn’t crap all over it either. It’s the same Peter Rabbit we grew up with living in today’s world and that was good enough for me.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
After the long-winded list of what worked above, thankfully there’s not a whole lot I want to complain about. One thing that didn’t fly with me at all was use of popular songs as the narrative progressed. MANY times, more than even remotely acceptable, the film cuts to popular pop and Top 40 hits of the last few years that only slightly match the theme of the moment and it’s all sung by a group of birds that have no other purpose but to break out in covers of song like “Rather Be” and “Remember the Name”. This is the sort of pandering I feared the ENTIRE film would embrace but thankfully this is the most extreme example and by far the most annoying. These songs took me out of a few scenes and had me wondering if the film’s child demographic would even understand any of these tunes or why they were funny or relevant. I can give the film a bit of credit for modifying the songs lyrically to match the “Peter Rabbit” story, but in the end these were clearly phoned in attempts to smooth out bumpy transitions and speed through the story and added nothing to the film.
On that note another issue with “Peter Rabbit” is pacing. Yes the film is fun and entertaining, but it’s also choppy and, at some points, condensed. The ending specifically is amazingly rushed which I found to be quite a disappointment after such an adventurous story had already played out. The rest of the film is a lot smoother, but still feels condensed and glued together loosely, saved only by enjoyable performances and a charming story. This is all due possibly to the inclusion of original material throughout most of the second and third act as the main story we all know about Peter Rabbit losing his coat in McGregor’s garden is condensed to the first third of the film. The rest of the story was penned by Gluck and his co-writer Rob Lieber and you can tell where the established story ends and the new one begins through clear messy transitions alone. Thankfully the pacing issues don’t take you out of the film, but they don’t help it by any means either. This kind of problem is typical in children’s films really, but many movies make up for it through exposition and other means. “Peter Rabbit” barely accomplishes that so while the movie is entertaining and memorable, it’s not very smooth or polished which is its biggest flaw overall and actually kind of warrants the lazily phoned in musical numbers mentioned above.
“Peter Rabbit” has its issues, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the film. It was funny, it was charming, it felt fresh and fun. It’s not Beatrix Potter’s vision, but it’s not really terrible or an insult to her legacy either. It’s nowhere near the horrid film the trailer made it out to be and sports fun performances and an effectively comedic script that does justice to the film’s origins while also making Peter Rabbit modern and relatable in today’s world. It has its charm and offers fun for the entire family, with kid friendly themes but adult friendly in-jokes and fourth wall breaks that provide something for all ages. Its main flaws are in its pacing and gratuitous top 40 song rip-offs that would make any other film unwatchable. Fortunately, “Peter Rabbit” is not only watchable, it’s actually very hilarious and entertaining to ways it probably never deserved to be. As someone who grew up cherishing the “Peter Rabbit” stories I not only got a taste of nostalgia but my initial hesitations towards the film were dissolved very quickly making “Peter Rabbit” the first big surprise quality movie of 2018 in my book. I’d highly recommend it, unless of course you’re a pretentious parent without a sense of humor or someone who refuses to see this iconic character in a different light. Then the in-jokes and modern take on the story it might be a bit much. Otherwise I’d be surprised for anyone to fault to find at least SOME redeemable fun watching this film.