Director: Will Gluck
Screenplay: Rob Lieber, Will Gluck
Starring: Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie, James Corden
Runtime: 93 Minutes
Adapting beloved children’s books and entertainments to screen – especially those featuring anthropomorphic animals – can be a very difficult thing to get right. Few of them ever fully work, but every now and then you get a miracle product like the Paddington series where the applied talent and filmmakers behind it have a genuine understanding of the material and how to handle it correctly in a contemporary context.
Peter Rabbit is not this. It’s not even approaching this. Chewed up and shit out by the Sony Corporation the second the rights became readily available, what we have here is a film that borders closer to the boundaries of cultural vandalism. Where none of the sincerity Beatrix Potter’s charming vision is taken into account, and instead panders to the lowest comedic grasps of slapstick, one-liners, and pulls apart every thread of its original design and appeal through oh so clever postmodern jibes at its own inherent laziness.
Following the death of Mr McGregor (Sam Neill in a short-lived role), the young Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) moves into the property with the intention of selling it off while romancing animal-loving neighbour Rose Byrne as Bea in allegedly adorkable rom-com scenes. It’s insinuated that Bea might, in fact, be Beatrix Potter, as she paints illustrations of the rabbits in a familiar style and ends up writing stories about them. This is one of many plot threads that go nowhere and serve little purpose.
Filmmakers have a right to change a material as it suits to fit a cinematic medium, but the works of Potter don’t feel as if they were ever suited to screen. As handsome as the designs look for the rabbits and setting, it’s easily broken by a story that doesn’t understand how to handle them, instead opting for jokes at the expense of the source material. Where ‘character’ in the traditional sense of the word is replaced with reoccurring gags, each and every one of which is ridden into the ground, and slapstick that feels like it has no earthy place in the environment of the English countryside.
Speaking of which, besides the location and the accents everything about the dialogue feels distinctly American, which only adds a dissonance to the material. Why it’s even been associated with Peter Rabbit is a mystery as it uses it only as a platform for Looney Tunes style sequences of comic violence. Then there’s the issue of post-modernism, which exists only to fire cheap jokes that don’t hold up or ever make sense as pop music plays loudly every couple of minutes.
At the head of all of this is the increasingly tiresome and creatively bankrupt James Corden and the titular character. Not only does the voice feel entirely ill-suited and alien, but Peter is the black heart at the centre of all this. Reimagined as a mean-spirited, overly confident and quick talking annoyance that never shuts up. So much so that you’re actually rooting for the young McGregor to just do away with him.
Speaking of which, if there’s a soul bright spark to the film then it’s in Domhnall Gleeson. His character isn't particularly compelling or original, but he is surprisingly game for the physical and verbal comedy, and the few jokes that do land as intended are mainly down to the nature of his delivery and snivelling demeanour as a screen presence (in a good way).
Although a contemporary updating of the text to modern day for no apparent reason, much of it takes place on the small-scale setting of the McGregor property as it pads out the runtime and bloats its innocuous stories with needless narrative complications. It doesn’t feel like something that exists as a whole, bound together by the contrived presence of the CGI rabbits in every single scene. Even a detour into London only seems to exist as a showcase of famous sights – one that the film actively acknowledges only exists to waste time and show off the cultural significance of the city without any reason more than to appease the tourist board.
On a technical level, the film isn’t all that badly directed or shot, but only because it’s one of the least aggressively offensive elements of the film. Director Will Gluck might have had the best of intentions when making it, with the lovingly rendered and designed costumes and jackets, but his hand as producer and also screenwriter spells out that he had more to do with its failings than anyone.
Peter Rabbit is the anti-Paddington. A work entirely uninterested in bringing a revered character and story to life, and more occupied with the dollars it can claim from disengaged parents and easy to please children with its idle storytelling, loud noises and the duplicated gags it digs a grave for every time they appear.