There’s a lot of hopping in Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit and, yes, much of it takes place on the grave of Beatrix Potter, from whom the story originates. With its smart visuals, decent gags and – mostly – likeable cast, however, the film will appeal to younger audiences.
This Peter makes for a battle of head and heart for a film critic who grew up with the delicate charm of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. With unearned confidence it lurches between the touchingly familiar and crassly insulting, attempting both post and premodern sensibilities. Take the weirdly misjudged opening, featuring interrupted singing birds in the vein of 2004’s Lemony Snicket; it’s followed by a panoptical sprint through a very green English countryside and checklist introduction to Potter’s beloved characters. Though each looks the part – all waistcoats and aprons – they speak and wisecrack with the pitter-patter of modern American toons and it’s immediately clear that the writers, Gluck and Rob Lieber, have entirely misunderstood the essence of the stories.
Except, then it transpires that the lovely neighbour of Peter’s nemesis Mr McGregor (a cameo from Sam Neill), Bea (Rose Byrne) paints her splendidly animated furry friends in the style of Potter herself. Which is sweet. Except, then McGregor has a – grossly inappropriate – heart attack, leaving the plot open for his young eligible nephew (Domnhall Gleeson) to arrive on the scene as a budding love interest for Bea and rival for the cocksure Peter. Less cute.
Having taken over Casa McGregor – in a sequence that ironically reminds non-innocent eyes of Orwell’s Animal Farm – it’s not long before the gang are being turned out by young McGregor and embark on an increasingly brutal turf war. Explosives, electric wires and allergies are all fair game but come at the expense of making Peter likeable. Fresh from The Emoji Movie, James Corden is miscast here as Potter’s mischievous young rabbit and delivers a performance that presents the character as an arrogant bully. By comparison, it is hard not to feel empathy for McGregor as he attempts to become a better person to win the heart of Bea. Gleeson and Byrne are excellent.
Whereas the two recent Paddington films may be deemed quintessentially British, accepting both a traditional and modern Britain, Peter Rabbit is a bygone affair attempting the same and missing the mark. From the world’s most unlikely taxi driver to the use of peanut butter in a rabbit trap, this is ‘Great Britain’ (as no one actually calls it) for an American audience and Windermere has never looked so dry.
Setting aside these qualms, albeit reluctantly, the film is not without charm and bursts of wit for the youngsters. There’s a neat joke involving a stag in headlights, that kids will love, and enough smart visual gags to keep the ball rolling. Peter Rabbit is at its slapstick funniest when nobody speaks, no pop music plays, and no one winks at the camera.