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PETER RABBIT (2018) review

February 4, 2018

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written by: Will Gluck and Rob Lieber
produced by: Will Gluck and Zareh Nalbandian
directed by: Will Gluck
rated: PG (for some rude humor and action)
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: February 9, 2018

 

Originally, this upcoming 3D live-action/CGI animated hybrid adventure comedy from Sony Pictures Animation was set to open around Easter, which is fitting considering its mischievous protagonist, but we all know how well “Hop” did when it was released in April of 2011. Plus, this is one of three animated releases Sony has on their slate for 2018, with another “Hotel Transylvania” this summer and the first “Goosebumps” sequel in the fall, so might as well bump it up a bit to space them out. As it turns out, “Peter Rabbit” is enjoyable and quite funny, which is somewhat of a relief considering its misguided marketing campaign, an over-reliance on physical comedy and, most of all, the movie’s obnoxious trailers leading up to its release. 

Indeed, the cloying trailers for “Peter Rabbit” looked like the movie was mistakingly trying too hard to distance itself from the charming source material, a definite mistake right there.  But as it turns out, director Will Gluck’s take on the beloved rabbit, from the stories from author Beatrix Potter, despite its reliance on physical injuries and domestic mayhem (thankfully, the incessant use of farting and peeing is not as high up on the checklist here as in most movies aimed at a family audience), is actually enjoyable and funny.

In this modern update on the 115-year-old character, we find Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) perusing through the English countryside of Windermere with his younger triplet sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) and their clumsy and loyal cousin, Benjamin (Matt Lucas), causing chaos for Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neil), as they continuously use his garden as an all-you-can-eat-buffet.  Their adventures involve coming up with scenarios that will allow them all the vegetables the garden offers, while preventing themselves from becoming meat pies at the hands of its owner.  These determined rodents are adored and protected by McGregor’s next-door neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne, in an obvious nod to Potter), an animal-loving artist who’s a better illustrator than she is a painter.

 

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When McGregor suddenly keels over in his garden, it leaves an opening for the irreverant rabbit and a horde of local wild animals to pillage the property inside and out. However, the party is short-lived when another McGregor, his distant nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), moves in after inheriting the property.  Younger and more determined than the old man, Thomas sets out to rid the garden of Peter and any other “vermin”, an approach that Peter matches with increased fervor. As both characters clash in an unrelenting manner, the unknowing Bea (who’s caught the attention of Thomas) is caught between the two stubborn and selfish characters, resulting in unnecessary and damaging calamity that compromises their relationship with her.

It’s kind of a surprise this movie got made to begin with considering Potter had refused to allow Walt Disney the rights to make a feature-length film back in the day, but things have changed since her death in 1943. There was an animated iteration of Peter Rabbit and friends in the 90s for BBC and then another for Nickelodeon, not to mention all the stage plays based on the character. Apparently, there was also a solid 1971 movie that captured a live-action ballet on the books as well. I don’t know if I’m gonna seek that out, but it at least it makes me realize that Potter’s creations are more of a brand than I ever thought. In this case, Sony Pictures is trying to revive the material and re-establish it as a brand.

The fact that I found this movie enjoyable, generating some audible laughs out of me (call it low expectations), is something of a miracle considering my low-tolerance for James Corden. I can’t explain how it is that I’m just not a fan of the guy, but it could be because he seems to try way too hard at everything he does, which continues to backfire for me. I conveniently forgot he voiced the titular character here (he’s done other animated voice work in “Trolls” and last year’s “The Emoji Movie”) until the animated rabbit opened his mouth. For the most part, he’s fine as the animated lead and as long as you’re not too tired seeing a variety of anthropamorphized creatures cause chaos, joke around, and enrage or win the hearts of humans in their world, this won’t be a waste of time.

 

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That being said, there are some problems with “Peter Rabbit” beyond the studio’s promotion approach. Throughout the movie there is an over-reliance on musical montages for no particular reason other than to fill time. One or two, maybe three moments like this are alright, but after that it gets to be an entirely unnecessary crutch after all. It’s not a musical after all, even though “Peter Rabbit” does open in mid-air with a quartet of singing birds (not a tweet tweet song, mind you), yet Gluck and company aren’t interested in a ‘less is more’ approach.  (Note: Including Dave Matthews Band’s “Crazy” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” is an egregious error in judgement and had me wondering what year this was supposed to be set in).

At the same time, Gluck makes the most of his two human leads in Gleeson and Byrne, both of whom continue to be effortlessly engaging to watch on screen with each role they take on.  Gleeson’s Thomas McGregor is introduced as an anal-retentive OCD manager at Harrods of London toy department who’s eyeing that promotion that’ll make his retail dreams come true. A funny British-centric joke about nepotism after Thomas doesn’t get the gig is one of many quick bits of humor that work, which will only register with certain adults in the audience. I wasn’t completely sold on the chemistry between Gleeson and Byrne, but watching them interact with their animated costars I found myself impressed with how game these two are, considering they have to imagine that they’re working alongside cute or annoying rodents. Considering what is required of them here, the two pull it off by committing just the right amount of energy and engagement with these critters.

“Peter Rabbit” may not be as wonderful and charming as the current Paddington movies have been – an apt comparison since both characters originate from British authors who found their anthropomorphic creations turned into a variety of lucrative merchandising for decades – but it earns some genuine laughs and the screenplay from Gluck and Rob Leiber (who scribed “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) has some wry moments of clever character-based comedy. I appreciated how it incorportated 2D animation at times, as if the source material’s illustrations had come to life, to remind us that these characters come from a quaint gentleness that is missing from the overall tone of the movie.

My favorite comedy moment? When Thomas McGregor first enters his great uncle’s house, sits down and a ghost appears next to him on the couch. It’s just a silly bit that reminded me of a certain David Lowery film from last year. By the time the movie ends, there’s potential for an even better sequel (I wouldn’t even mind it if Gluck returns to helm it, since I’ve been a fan since “Easy A“) and if the writers can trust in the “Home Alone” hijinks, I think they may have something, or at least more fitting.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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