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 A Bunny Tale 

Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie
Columbia Pictures
 95 Minutes
Directed byWill Gluck
Starring: James Corden, Rose Byrne 
Peter Rabbit

At first glance, Peter Rabbit would seem to be a movie cut out of the same cinematic cloth as last month’s Paddington 2 (or, at the least, its predecessor, the original Paddington). After all both movies are based on beloved children’s classics featuring adorably cute animals that dress and sometimes act as humans. And both movies feature state-of-the-art CGI animation that seamlessly blends animated bunnies and bears with human actors. But Paddington 2 has something that’s somewhat missing in Peter Rabbit… heart. For, while Paddington (the bear) is a sweet, adorable, innocent who immediately wins over both the audience and the other characters in the film, Peter Rabbit (the rabbit) comes across more like a cross between Bugs Bunny and Macaulay Culkin in the Home Alone movies.


For those whose childhood memories are a bit faint, Peter Rabbit was the hero of a series of children’s books written by Beatrix Potter in the early 1900’s. Peter was a rabbit by nature but a typical little boy at heart, prone to disobeying his mother’s instructions to steer clear of Farmer McGregor’s vegetable garden. Fortunately for him and several generations of children, he was able to avoid the farmer’s wrath and get back home to a loving family and a life lesson learned. And, even though Peter’s dad had wound up as a rabbit pie on the McGregors’ dinner table, the books were sweet and good natured, as one would expect of literature aimed at the preschool set.


Fast forward a century or so and Peter (voiced by James Corden), along with his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley) still hang out on the outskirts of the garden and periodically raid it for food and to bedevil McGregor (Sam Neill). However, during one of these raids, McGregor has a heart attack and dies, to the delight of all the animals in the area, who turn his house into a 24-hour party central.


Peter and friends’ idyllic existence is short lived however, when McGregor’s only living relative, grandnephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), a perfectionist former retail manager, shows up to claim the inheritance. Thomas’ plan is to clean the place up and sell it and, to that end, he starts erecting fences and taking other measures to keep the animals out. This leads to a rapidly escalating duel between Thomas and Peter (see scene below), eventually involving electrified fences and dynamite sticks. Caught in the middle of all this is Thomas’ neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne as an updated version of Beatrix Potter herself), who has always been sweet on Peter and his relatives but, as she gets to know Thomas somewhat better, warms up to him as well.


Although the character of Peter Rabbit may date back over a century, his real lineage goes back only about half that time to the Warner Brothers cartoons on the 1950’s. The screenplay, which was co-written by director Will Gluck, patterns many of Peter’s antics after Bugs Bunny, with the hapless Thomas a stand-in for Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. That proves problematic for a number of reasons, primarily because the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Thomas starts out as a typical martinet comic villain, but, once he meets Bea, he mellows out tremendously, and Gleeson and Byrne actually enjoy a good chemistry opposite each other.


The movie tries to solve the problem thus created by having both Thomas and Peter eventually kiss and make up, each acknowledging their character flaws. That still doesn’t quite mesh with the level of violence in the movie, as Thomas is subjected to repeated electric shocks, stepping on bear (or, I guess, rabbit) traps, and, in one instance, being force fed a blackberry, to which he is allergic, an event which requires him to give himself an epinephrine injection. Add to that the joy that Peter feels upon learning he has contributed to old man McGregor’s death (including laughing as he checks for non-existent) vital signs, and we have something that’s closer in spirit to a Saw movie than a children’s classic.


Of course, children have watched Bugs Bunny cartoons for decades without becoming serial killers, but those cartoons are obviously animated, and no one thinks it odd that Yosemite Sam can have a cannon blow up in his face and come back for more in the next scene. Here, the actors are real and even the animated animals appear real and Peter proves somewhat the little sadist (unlike the violence in Paddington which a clumsy Paddington brings upon himself and emerges with a smile).


For these reasons, I was never fully able to warm up to Peter Rabbit, which is a shame because in many ways it is quite clever. As with many animated films nowadays, much of the humor is aimed at adults rather than children (at one point, Peter addresses the audience directly to discuss his character flaws). Even the humor that kids can easily pick up on often works well, such as a secondary pig character who alternately acts like a refined gentleman and then grunts and gobbles down an entire tray of food. It’s silly but effective. Another clever bit is a literal deer that gets caught in the headlights, conveniently (for Peter) stopping traffic when needed.


Peter Rabbit tries to have it all three ways, by capturing the sweet innocence of the original Beatrix Potter stories that the Paddington movies did so well while, at the same time, appealing to more adult sensibilities with meta humor and also going for crude slapstick of the most juvenile sort. It’s an uneasy mix for a film, and one that the movie never gets quite right, even though much of the slapstick is surprisingly effective. Still, for an adult playing chaperone to preschoolers, one could do far worse than to see this professionally polished albeit emotionally crude effort. This movie won’t rekindle much interest in Potter’s work (although it does lovingly recreate her famed watercolors), or in either the human or rodent characters, but enough things keep hopping along to keep the audience interested and somewhat entertained.

In this scene, Domhnall Gleeson chases after Peter Rabbit.

Read other reviews of Peter Rabbit: 

Peter Rabbit (2018) on IMDb