REVIEW – “Peter Rabbit” Accomplishes a Quirky, Free-Footed Approach to Fratboy Humor, For the Family

by Joe Hammerschmidt

It seems like only yesterday, but already a month passed since the incredibly charming Paddington 2 started its stroll around American screens, albeit faring lower than its predecessor. This goes without saying, but if you have not made time to enjoy that adventure, it may not be too late. Unless, your kids’ attention spans are dictating, and they’ll be in control to drag the parents to something slightly less flattering. Not that it’s a disappointing shame, Peter Rabbit delivers on the promise of a three-prong attack: quirky slapstick for the hand-holders, some surface-scratching raunch for parents, and a captivating study of leadership against the brunt of emotional loss. What it lacks in storybook-esque simplicity, makes up for with a bite for mixing national humor styles. Think Neighbors, but with wildlife.

Unlike Paddington, which had the look and feel of a faithful adaptation with a passionate, director Will Gluck, a reliable studio utility player, takes another risk (much like Annie), by removing the traditionalist angle anyone else in his shoes would avoid. That is, to take a new approach to the source material, Beatrix Potter’s classic children’s novels, something we as kids took to heart, and pull far away. This Rabbit appears more aged up, a little more mature, seemingly geared up towards upper-level grade schoolers through its visuals, but more emphasized its penchant for classy slapstick. It’s not supposed to work, but amazingly it does, no less in part to late-night trendsetter James Corden’s ironically meta, almost satirical turn in the title role.

Using Sydney in place of London, likely to allow the filmmakers to have been closer to the animators (the busy artists at Animal Logic), the film starts rather promising, again if the film had stuck closer to the source. A now young-adult Peter (Corden), his three triplet sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and their fellow woodland neighbors attempt another random break-in on the garden of their human neighbor, the aging Mr. McGregor (a rather unrecognizable Sam Neill in live action), mirroring the rebellious spirit they were as little’uns against their parents’ wishes.

Peter still recognizes this urgent reminder to not go into the garden, yet his wits and quick-footed skill will often reflect otherwise; it surely helps to have a free-thinking, pro-animal neighbor like Bea (Rose Byrne) to help keep the peace. Yet when Old Man McGregor dies from a sudden heart attack, a multitude of wheels are set in motion to lure the deceased farmer’s distant relative, city boy Thomas (Domnhall Gleeson) to his estate for a pre-sale appraisal. The animals think they have their land reclaimed; instead, it evolves into an all-out turf war, more so than with the elder McGregor.
And therein, rather covers up a problem that didn’t seem as obvious as this writer expected because he was laughing too much at a screening unsurprisingly dominated by the younger set.

The plot means well, interjected with the above-mentioned schoolyard humor appealing too well to all quadrants, and an exercise in familial love, regardless whether the parents around to reinforce those values. The difficulty in justifying this finite relationship is where the moving parts suffer, exposing the real thinness reliant on an overwhelming amount of padding. I suppose, seeing as this is the equivalent of every bad major studio comedy from last year unwilling to break against convention, only aimed at kids, the expectations should be lower. The idea of it being a British-Aussie-American co-production easily lends itself to plenty of rewards, yet it doesn’t stop the product from running out of gas as the fun’s improving.

Some recurring jokes actually make for the best fun, and a handful of snappy one-liners will easily keep viewers engaged and chuckling. There’s some slight innuendo that pops up, albeit just in the first act; thankfully the youngest may not catch on, with any luck. A fight scene reminiscent of every great Frat Pack film of the late 90s/early 00s could get the parents cheering. A gag with doorknob shocks may be enough to cause yuks to erupt on all corners, the way it’s set up with Gleeson, aka the uber-serious General Hux of Star Wars fame, stepping out of his comfort zone to attempt an all-comedy role.

Byrne flaunts about to a point of high-art (literally) caricature status, almost possessing a hippie-like quality towards the young McGregor, who mistakenly falls for the woman as part of a plan to infiltrate the animals’ space. But to no surprise, Corden proves in an effortless fashion how much he needs to do more films, despite having a nightly chat show taking up most of his time. With just his voice, as opposed to Gleeson’s frenetic method acting, dearest James can run flat-footed circles against his peers, though not quite Robbie, who among the three bunny triplets, serves as the commanding voice of reason.

There’s a fine duality that keeps Peter Rabbit from turning too good for its britches, or too sour for its runtime. The film jumps around both camps multiple times, lending to a certain imbalance that could evolve into a distraction if not careful. Striving to go beyond the common American CGI cute animal flick, the distinction weighs too heavily. Above mentioned vocal performances more-or-less save the film, while everything else crumbles. You’re still encouraged to seek out the bear while it’s still in theaters, but that doesn’t mean there can be made room for this lagomorph adventure, preferably as a matinee double bill. From there, one can judge from themselves which literary character truly did it better, and closer to form. (C+)

Peter Rabbit is in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG for some rude humor and action; 93 minutes.