Synopsis – Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.
My Take – Growing up wasn’t always about reading Marvel and DC comic books, as I clearly remember it was my father who first handed me over a collection of stories revolving around a small brown rabbit in a faded blue coat who would zip through a leafy garden picking up as many veggies and fruits as possible, while indulging in the most mischievous ways to torment the gardens owner, Mr. McGregor, mainly as a change of pace. This beloved children series from early 20th century by British scientist, illustrator and writer Beatrix Potter was indeed her best-known work, and it is surprising to know that after years of pursuing the copyright holders to allow the classic character to grace the big screen, we eventually see it come to life through Sony Pictures, aka the same company who produced the dreadful 2011 adaption of The Smurfs and its terrible 2013 sequel.
My doubts about the adaptions seemed apt especially when the trailers of the film adaptions arrived leaving a lot of people with some mixed feelings, while raising the question, why resurface something which has been buried for so long? But surprisingly like most, the film was much better than expected, as I found myself laughing and smiling throughout its run time. While I too found the allergy bullying controversy blown out of proportion for a scene that was over so quickly that it didn’t seem insensitive or distasteful, well at least to me, I was glad to see how director Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits) used silly banter, critter mayhem, and posh British accents, to make a family flick that will resonate with both with old and young viewers alike. Sure, it’s not perfect and there are better family films out there, like the criminally overlooked Paddington series, it sure manages to be hugely entertaining and charming.
The story follows Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden), who due to his never ending interest in the fruits and vegetables of the garden owned by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), continuously conducts raids with his three sisters Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (voiced by Daisy Ridley), along with their clumsy cousin, Benjamin (voiced by Colin Moody). While McGregor is in a constant battle with them, Peter’s selfish and reckless methods always find him in trouble, mainly as he knows that Bea (Rose Byrne), kind animal loving neighbor is always there to save him.
But, one fateful day when it looks like the Old Man may have finally gotten the upper hand, McGregor hits the ground, as a victim of a heart attack. While the animals rejoice upon finding out that they can move into the house and eat freely from the garden, they are disappointed to find that McGregor’s great nephew Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), has decided to move in with the purpose of sprucing up the house and grounds to sell, in order to finance his dream of opening his own toy store. As Thomas begins to spiff the house and repair any way into the garden via fences, gates, holes, etc. Peter and his family are dismayed, find themselves in a game of wits with Thomas who like his uncle also hates animals.
However, things complicate as Thomas starts to fall for Bea, and their relationship blossoms, Peter decides it’s time to get rid of Thomas once and for all. As I had grown up reading his tales, I was glad to see how for 95 minutes, the sophisticated CGI technique rather blended well with the live action. Sure, story wise, the film offers a conflict that could be understood by those above 10 years old rather than their main target, children and families, it sure manages to be enormously entertaining, all thanks to a mostly well-written and cleverer than your average anthropomorphic animal tale written by Zareh Nalbandian and director Will Gluck, as a vast majority of the jokes hit the mark and range from being very funny to hilarious. Sure, the battles between the McGregor men and Peter get kind of mean-spirited at times, but the violence is mostly of the cartoon variety.
Like Home Alone, the film pulls out loads of tricks to keep things fun and wasting little time on other tricks. The funniest scene, in my opinion, is when Thomas and Peter actually go hand-to-hand in a very overblown, slapstick way while playing at being nice whenever Bea pops in the room, along with the very physical and increasingly violent comedy that Domhnall Gleeson is given to do. Yet, what earns major points with me is the cleverer writing that is indicated for adults. Peter boasts a brash charisma that toes the line between excessive arrogance and justified ego. He’s clever and able to escape harrowing traps, though more often than not he strutted into the trap in the first place and yet, despite his wit and charm, Peter is selfish and arrogant.
Many outraged parents and internet commentators view the blackberry scene as an endorsement of bullying, but it’s just the opposite. The remainder of the film focuses on Peter’s numerous failings as a character. He is responsible for most of the hardships his family faces, and his repeated assaults on the McGregors have made matters worse, not better. Director Will Gluck doesn’t shy away from Peter’s flaws and acknowledges the reality that a protagonist and a hero are not always the same. Against all odds, Thomas is the film’s lifeblood, as rather than reduce him to a one-dimensional troll, director Gluck opts to give him an arc.
While developed characters are the expectation for every film, children’s films infrequently infuse pathos into their villains. Thomas is far from innocent as he demonstrates a delusional desire for fascistic order, but his character flaws are rooted in past failures and future aspirations and most refreshing of all, he’s allowed to grow. While Bea exists as a modern stand-in of sorts for Beatrix Potter, she cares for the rabbits and the other wildlife in the area and draws them. Of course, her drawings are the real Beatrix Potter’s book illustrations, and it’s a sweet tribute.
There are also short 2D animated segments that are drawn in a style akin to Potter, and the animation looks good, and it suggested almost immediately that thought went into this film beyond what would rake in some easy cash. Peter’s transition into 3-D, realistic looking visuals looked like a smooth process. Sure, the rabbits are a little bigger than normal, wild rabbits, and they’re upright more than not, but they still hop and nibble and wiggle their noses, the way rabbits do. The designs of all the characters are on cuteness overloaded, and are certain to be the next line of plush animals for your young ones to grab on to. Past the design, the movement of the animated five is fluid, a nice balance of natural rabbit movement meeting anthropomorphized anatomy that really brings the action and gimmicks to life. Incidentally, when the critters aren’t speaking English, they behave like animals.
The scenes of rabbits racing over hill and dale look as authentic as the real thing might. The detailed texture of their fur and way they wiggle their ears seems truly life-like, too. These days anything that looks that convincing is almost assuredly CGI. Yes, the film does have the odd joke that is a little too repetitive, a notable one being with Pigling Bland and some of the second half is predictable where it is easy to see where it’s all going to go, some of the supporting characters are underused and maybe there could have been less narration. The film does suffer from a lack of emotional punch to really drive the lessons home. In addition, thanks to the simple dialog and over advertising, the film loses some of its uniqueness/edge to boredom at seeing it a thousand times.
However, the film does earn most of its brownie points from its actors, both live and voice. James Cordon does a great job as the voice of Peter Rabbit, as he turns on his amiable British charm as the incorrigible but charismatic long-eared protagonist. The Late Late Show host’s wisecracking take on Potter’s winsome character is very much of its time. He is supported by an impressive vocal cast that includes Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley. However, the scene stealer is rising actor Domhnall Gleeson, who makes Thomas more than just a standard clichéd archetype that he appears to be at first and manages the difficult physical comedy and the difficult task of interacting in real life with nothing with ease. While, Rose Byrne is as always charming, and her chemistry with Gleeson and the animals is sweet. Sam Neill is likable in a cameo. On the whole, ‘Peter Rabbit’ is a surprisingly fun film which successfully blends live action comedy with impressively expressive animation.
Directed – Will Gluck
Rated – PG
Run Time – 95 minutes