Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. And so it is that British cinema’s baron months finally bear fruit. Or should that be carrots? Yes, Peter Rabbit is back. To be precise: Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit is back. That’s in opposition to the more delicately mischievous creation of Beatrix Potter. Whilst Gluck’s second adventure in Windermere retains the dimly meaner streak of its predecessor, it is somewhat softer around the edges and all the better for it. James Corden is no less horribly miscast as Peter but at least you can root for the winning performances of his live action counterparts: Domnhall Gleason and Rose Byrne.
In keeping with the first film’s conclusion, Peter Rabbit 2 opens mid ceasefire. Mr. McGregor (Gleeson) and Bea (Byrne) are to be married and, though he may dream of kicking the former into kingdom come, Peter has agreed to be their ring bearer. McGregor, in return, is perfectly prepared to put up with his new wife’s fondness for pets in petticoats…so long as they steer well clear of his prized tomatoes. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in there? Perhaps not. This isn’t that sort of film.
Despite his best efforts, however, Peter can’t resist the odd misdemeanour. Not that it’s always his fault, of course. It takes a solid ten minutes for Gluck to land his first real gag but it’s a rib tickler involving Sam Neill’s Tommy Brock. Adamant that a rabbit can’t change its spots, McGregor leaps at the opportunity to get his own back when it arrives in the shape of Nigel Basil-Jones and a well cast David Oyelowo.
Excessively named, Basil-Jones is the big city (Gloucester) publisher with big city ideas for the quaint stories Bea has written about Peter and his friends. It’s a splendidly self-aware subplot here that sees Bea wrestle with the interference of a board of would-be creatives, with ideas of ‘updating’ The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ for the iPhone generation. Watch for the moment Bea – whose surname here is, naturally, Potter – tirades that she would rather spin in her grave than have her books turned into a ‘sassy hip fest’. A line that presumably came direct from a British critic reviewing the first film.
While Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Benjamin (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne and Colin Moody, respectively) revel in Basil-Jones’ sassy reimagining of their characters, Peter recoils in horror as he is labelled ‘the bad seed’. Every story needs a villain, Basil-Jones purrs. Lost in a crisis of identity, it’s at this point Peter stumbles into Barnabas (Lennie James), a rough-round-the-edges rabbit who purports to be an old friend of Peter’s late father. An Oliver Twist inspired plot twist segues quickly into an escapade straight from the Oceans handbook and it’s not long before Peter finds everything he holds dear under threat.
Peter Rabbit 2 is, undoubtedly, a step in the right direction for the franchise. It’s still the bad seed to Paddingtonw’s gold standard but the tangible effort here to better grasp the essence of Potter’s morality is as notable as it is admirable. Cordon aside, a strong and starry cast pay dividends – Sia, Hayley Atwell and Tim Minchin also lend their voices to tailored wildlife – and the technical achievements of those behind the scenes are undeniable. It would be churlish for even the most ardent of purists to critique the film’s pleasing visuals purely on the basis of blinkered cultural snobbery.
That said, Gluck’s script remains a sticking point, even on its own terms. Hit and miss jokes never fly as high as they do low and the pervading sense is for a tone that doesn’t quite land. Free of the first film’s penchant for upsetting anaphylactics, Peter Rabbit 2 hits all the right notes for half term fodder and will make for an inoffensive Saturday afternoon. With lockdowns behind us – touch wood – 2021 is only just getting started. It’s about time cinema goers were spoilt for choice again.