Directed by Will Gluck
Written by Rob Leiber and Will Gluck
Children’s book movies seem a perfect gateway into movies for the youngsters. They come pre-packaged with the type of family fare which parents can rest assured will be PG for their kids, while also coming with built in storytelling and comedy. With classic tales like Winnie the Pooh or, in this case Peter Rabbit, the stories can even be new and and fresh for the young audience who may be experiencing the classic characters for the very first time. That there hasn’t been a Peter Rabbit movie before is somewhat surprising, though it is a somewhat secondary classic children’s character behind the aforementioned Pooh, whose adventures share the same pastoral setting and desire to find food. But while Peter Rabbit may lag behind in popularity, he certainly makes up for it in charm and wit.
Peter (James Coreden) is the leader of the rabbit clan, which is made up of his three sisters (Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki) and his cousin, after the nearby farmer Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) has killed their parents for foraging in his garden. Equipped with his father’s shirt and wherewithal, Peter devices plan after plan to plunder McGregor’s garden until one day, McGregor dies of a heart attack. Inherited by his great-nephew (Domhnall Gleeson), a city slicker who hopes to simply sell the manor, the farm and garden becomes the roost for the rabbits until the new Mr. McGregor shows up, younger and more enthusiastic about doing away with the feisty rabbits. But McGregor soon falls for the neighbor, a pretty woman named Bea (Rose Byrne), who as it turns out is an ally of the country creatures. McGregor struggles to decide whether he truly wants the animals gone, or whether he is truly in love with Bea.
A film of this type can be expected to paint in very broad strokes. It can even be expected to insert a variety of shoehorned pop culture references which age immediately. Peter Rabbit does both of these things, which detract from the true heart of the story, and yet the film still has its soaring moments and endearing character beats which come, no doubt, from the treasured source material itself. Still, I can’t help but voice my disappointment that the film does nothing to separate itself from so many other films within the genre by playing it safe, making silly reference and jokes, and not focusing on the treasure trove of opportunity a project like this affords a filmmaker. Peter Rabbit manages to feel, at once, like a film in which director Will Gluck is somehow trying way too hard while also not trying at all.
There is a lot to like about this film, fleeting as it may be. The voice work here is quite good, especially from James Corden as Peter. However, the voices of Robbie, Ridley and Debicki are nearly indistinguishable and completely un-noteworthy. Part of this problem is their characters are so overpowered by the personality and story of Peter that they never get their own moments to shine, or their own story arcs to follow, which certainly is a detriment. The live action performances from Byrne and Gleeson are very cartoonish, which I am sure is exactly what the film wanted them to be. I find myself struggling between understanding the style of this film being one which caters to a young audience who finds silly slapstick simple storytelling engaging and being utterly disappointed that we can’t offer our children a little better form of entertainment.
I don’t need Peter Rabbit through the eyes of Ingmar Bergman or anything like that, but there have been successful, fun, hilarious, and well made children’s films before which were built on strong characters, solid jokes, and inventive storytelling. Instead, with Peter Rabbit we are given a film made for the lowest common denominator among us. As a result it is a film with hit or miss humor, one which may entertain within the moment but is instantly forgettable. It’s not a film that will stand the test of time, failing to be relevant even by the time the year comes to a close most likely. We could do worse than Peter Rabbit, that much is true, but all I am saying is we could also do much, much better too.