‘Peter Rabbit’ Has Fun, Big Screen Mischief (Movie Review)

Well, it’s clear the American trailers have done a disservice to Peter Rabbit. Based on the classic children’s stories created by Beatrix Potter, this 2018 cinematic interpretation has the appearance of…well, something like Smurfs. The actual film is much better. It’s no Paddington 2, which came out first and could bury this movie any day of the week, but Peter Rabbit has a lot more cleverness and understated comedy going along with all the slapstick fun and jukebox-like soundtrack selection. Suffice it to say, this rabbit has a few good-natured tricks up its jacket sleeves.

The screenplay by director Will Gluck and co-writer Rob Lieber is something of a mashup of ideas from the original stories and a continuation of them. Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) is a walking, talking rabbit who enjoys taking fruit and vegetables from the garden of the cranky Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill). When Mr. McGregor suddenly dies, his uptight nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) moves in and starts enforcing his own rule over the farm. This is until his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne) presents herself as an animal lover forcing Thomas to have something of a stealth war with the mischievous Peter Rabbit and the other animals.

There are a lot of reasons to enjoy what this film has to offer. For all the juvenile antics and overused needle drops, the film attempts to be a smart subversion of tropes. It’s not quite the meta success of something more complex and adult, or on the level of the best of Mel Brooks or Monty Python. However, for a Sony Pictures Animation film, I would put it on the same level as the cleverer-than-expected George of the Jungle movie from 1997 (yes, my old reference easily applies). Plenty of moments felt like a genuine surprise when it came to watching the film move through what were likely the motions of an early first draft given new life by the attempts to add some edge and self-awareness.

Helping out the film further is its balance of the animal characters and the humans. Corden and his crew that includes Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Sia, and Colin Moody do plenty to bring life to the wonderfully-animated animals. The voice work brings enough energy that helps to make it about more than just silly sight-gags, and Corden is in the preferable zone for me as far as how his style of comedy is handled without being overbearing.

The human side of things is more interesting, which may just be more about how much I appreciate Gleeson. As an actor who has tackled a variety of roles, it never tires me to see a “serious” actor play up the idea of “stiff London man goes bonkers.” So watching a game Gleeson bounce around his house and farm is pretty funny, especially since it’s ultimately a battle for affection. Gleeson gets to have an arc thanks to his introduction, and a late point in the film has him highlighting how he’s changed, making the film’s dilemma resonate.

I say that because Peter Rabbit is a rom-com that happens to feature comedically-inspired battles for supremacy. Byrne, who is also quite game to have fun in this film, serves as a love interest for Thomas, as well as a maternal figure for Peter. We learn that through some neat, animated segments that recall the original Potter stories. Having that context, it makes the film more effective, as things are rooted in character. As opposed to just having a brand to play around with, there is a conscious effort here to tell a story that works, in addition to being fun.

Of course, that doesn’t take away from the many gags, self-referential humor, and ridiculousness that is bound to make the family chuckle. This film has a good amount of comedy that ranges from amusement to out-and-out laughter, which was nice to see. If Paddington can get buy on one approach to British humor, it is nice to see Peter Rabbit (which is an American film) work a different angle. Some of the fun attempts to call out what you are expecting may seem like the movie is patting itself on the back a bit too much, but once again…it’s no Smurfs.

Peter Rabbit succeeds thanks to building a story around characters and knowing what sort of ways to go for comedy. It sticks with a fun tone, finds excellent material for the cast involved to dig into, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. That’s enough to make for a good time at the movies with one mischievous rabbit with a taste for radishes.

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