The family films that have had a lot of success adapting classic kids’ books haven’t been the ones that try to be hip and cool. If you look at movies like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Paddington, you see films that aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeve. But Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit surgically removes almost all of the charm of Beatrix Potter’s classic character and repurposes him into a rebel leading his siblings to raid Mr. McGregor’s garden. The film attempts to shoehorn in an emotional arc by noting the death of Peter’s parents, but it always seems far more comfortable firing off a quick quip. While Domhnall Gleeson gives it his all as a young McGregor warring with CGI rabbits, Peter Rabbit would rather let you know it has attitude rather than a heart.
Peter Rabbit (James Corden), his siblings Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley), and cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody) spend their days raiding the garden of Old Man McGregor (Sam Neill) and under the protection of his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne). When McGregor dies from a heart attack, the wildlife think they have the run of the house until McGregor’s uptight nephew Thomas McGregor (Gleeson) comes to tidy up the countryside house so he can sell the property and use the profit to open a toy store in London. However, Thomas starts to fall for Bea while at the same time going to war with Peter and his family.
There are moments when Peter Rabbit provides glimpses of a much better movie and a movie it could likely never be. We see that Bea (clearly a stand-in for Beatrix Potter even though this movie would like make her roll in her grave) paints Peter and it’s in the style of Potter’s books. It’s not difficult to imagine an entire film done in this animation, but because major studios have rejected 2D animation, we’re treated to a blend of live-action and photorealistic rabbits that are never as cute as the movie thinks.
But as we’ve seen with Paddington, a live-action/CGI blend doesn’t prevent a movie from channeling the warm spirit of the source material. What prevents it here is a timidity to do anything that ventures outside of slapstick and pop songs. There’s the grating attitude throughout Peter Rabbit as if the film is afraid of genuine sentiment and while it’s able to fire off some good jokes, the tone always seems to be at the detriment of the film’s charm, especially with the grating Corden providing the voice of Peter.
The one shining aspect of the film is Gleeson. He basically plays Thomas McGregor like General Hux got a garden. His deadly serious tone and physical comedy are perfectly pitched, and he manages to walk the line between a guy who wants to murder our heroes (despite the rabbits not being particularly likable) and the love-interest for Bea. It’s an impressive turn in a movie that doesn’t really deserve his talents. While it’s no surprise that Gleeson is talented at comedy (he got his start on the Irish sketch comedy series Your Bad Self), the movie is at its best when the focus is on McGregor rather than Peter.
Which is a problem when your movie is called “Peter Rabbit.” This isn’t the case of the source material being poor. This is the case of a studio and a filmmaker not looking at what has succeeded in adapting classic children’s books. I don’t really need a “cool” Peter Rabbit, and especially one who seems so entitled (He and his family see McGregor’s home as theirs simply because at one point all land belonged to animals). There’s nothing wrong with just being nice, but Peter Rabbit would prefer to be cool and funny, and it just ends up as largely forgettable.