Modern family films, especially those based on previously established commodities, run the risk of alienating die hard purists. Updates for contemporary audiences are often a necessity but can come at the expense of the author’s original intent. Peter Rabbit, a contemporary take on the stories of Beatrix Potter, doesn’t break away from questionable trends. You’ll hear a conglomerate of pop songs throughout and Potter certainly wasn’t one for making jokes about inserting carrots into the human anatomy. That said, it moves at an erratic pace and there’s a garden full of jokes to carry you through the flat moments. Unlike, say, the recent Smurfs films, there’s an inherent attention to capturing a semblance of what has lent the titular animal such longevity.
The core of Potter’s story, centered on a never-ending battle between mischievous Peter and the malicious Mr. McGreggor, is the throughline of the film but with a major curveball. Shortly into the film, McGreggor (played by a thick accented Sam Neill) keels over from a massive heart attack. This leaves Peter and his band of creatures with an entire garden of vegetables and a proverbial palace to live in. Their apparent victory quickly evaporates with the arrival of McGreggor’s neat freak great-nephew Thomas (Domnhall Gleeson). Thomas wants nothing to do with the countryside, opting to sell his uncle’s house and get back at his former employer. Peter, always one for mischief, has other ideas.
Once the film introduces Thomas, it picks up the pieces after a rather shaky start. One of the film’s most adamant flaw is apparent from the inception. Following an opening musical number from a flight of birds, the movie is subsequently tracked by an endless swarm of top 40 songs. This is nothing new but it reeks of corporate studio notes nevertheless. Not only that, there’s nothing particularly timeless about this choice and contrasts poorly with most of the movie’s humor. Speaking of contrast, McGreggor’s death is a sardonic note in the movie and one that may not entirely mesh for younger viewers. The tragic fate of Peter’s father at the hands of McGreggor is used as a means of justifiable irony but it’s a mean spirited note to begin on. Thankfully, the cynicism is used for some much more effective humor as the movie progresses.
Much of the struggle between Peter and Thomas is executed through slapstick and trickery. The gags escalate from innocuous to harmful but there’s a playfulness throughout. The movie never steps outside a boundary to create some Rube Goldberg-esque contraption. For a fantastical world featuring anthropomorphic critters, the setpieces are confined to some semblance of practicality. The physical comedy is aided by Gleeson, who by no means sleepwalks through the punishment. This is not a Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace situation in which an actor is obviously unenthused about working with his computerized co-stars. He’s also aided by co-star Rose Byrne, who plays his cheerful next door neighbor. Their chemistry is palpable albeit nothing new as a romance. That said, the movie recognizes that and devotes as much time as required without dwelling on schmaltz. It hits plenty of cliches along the way, but it’s never dull or there for padding the brisk runtime.
When it comes to the titular character and his cohorts, they’re relatively serviceable. Corden’s vocal performance as Peter is nowhere near as grating as High Five in The Emoji Movie. For the character who is the focal point of the story, he’s the weak link unfortunately. Peter is depicted as a troublemaker but there comes a point where he hinges on being unlikable. Even when his epiphany occurs, there’s almost a moment of sarcasm accompanying it. His siblings, particularly Daisy Ridley’s Flopsy, are given a couple of perpetually amusing running gags. At times they’re patronizing to younger viewers, notably the inclusion of animals who are there solely to be cute. There are some quips that appeal solely to adults such as the meta comments regarding why the animals wear clothing. One of them in particular, featuring a neurotic soon-to-be-father rooster, is made a hysterical running gag. The fact that there are any running jokes at all that hit shows an attention to detail on the part of the screenwriter.
Peter Rabbit occasionally hits a false note but the music it plays is relatively safe. There’s no major plot twist and the revelations are simplistic for children to comprehend. Your tolerance of the movie will largely depend on whether or not you have an aversion to broad slapstick. It’s a bearable and often amusing form of entertainment for a Sunday afternoon with your entire family. For an ad campaign that screamed this isn’t your grandma’s Peter Rabbit, there’s a spirituality and a charm that makes it a distant cousin.