There is a good film, a high quality and potentially even classic film, trying desperately to crawl its way out of co-writer/director Will Gluck's more impulsive bordering on crass tendencies in Gluck's take on the literary classic Peter Rabbit.
However, Peter Rabbit never gets there. It actually never even gets close, too often choosing contemporary over classic and crassness over quality in its ill-fated attempt to appeal to both literary purists and a wider audience.
It's the literary purists who are likely to be most unhappy with Peter Rabbit, a film that manages to turn the naughty but sweet and beloved title character created by Beatrix Potter way back in 1901 when Potter did her initial printing of a mere 250 copies intended for her closest family and friends. While Peter has always been, indeed, a naughty rabbit, co-scribes Gluck and Rob Lieber have turned Peter Rabbit into a wounded rabbit with unresolved mommy issues and a hare-raising case of PTSD and a vengefulness that was kind of like watching Mickey Mouse croon "How I Could Just Kill a Man."
In the shadow of the vastly superior Brit production Paddington 2, which hasn't garnered near the attention it deserves here in the U.S. despite global receipts ensuring its success, it's almost painful to think that this lazy, unimaginative and just plain flimsy production might actually find the wider audience that Paddington 2 so completely deserves.
The worst sin among many is that Gluck has the audacity to periodically weave into the film Potter's classic illustrations, a hint of what the film could have been had Gluck possessed higher aspirations and a trust in Potter's source material. The illustrations themselves immediately infuse the film with a warmth and a wave of welcome memories that immediately subsides once Gluck impulsively snatches those good feelings away in favor of one more misconceived electrocution or some more of Peter Rabbit's misguided bad boy attitude.
It takes major balls, or complete and utter stupidity, to turn such a beloved character into not much more than a wreckless and homicidal maniac, who early on in the film takes credit for neighbor Mr. McGregor's (Sam Neill) untimely demise.
I suppose I take some solace in the fact that Peter Rabbit isn't even close to Potter's story. Instead, Gluck and Lieber have fleshed out a more contemporary story around the skeletal bones of Potter's classic. In Gluck's Peter Rabbit, Peter (James Corden) lives alongside sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) along with their lop-eared cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody) in the lands that surround the home of a bunny's best friend, Bea (Rose Byrne), an artist whose countryside home inspires her work and her rabbit whisperer relationship with the rabbits and, just perhaps, most especially with the wounded rabbit in search of a maternal figure Peter. Next door, however, lives Mr. McGregor, an older gent whose approach to the rabbits is adversarial at best and who regularly butts heads with Bea in the most British of ways, the sort of way where anger is more implied than actually expressed.
Despite long ago warnings from his mother to steer clear of McGregor's garden, courtesy of Peter's father having once been caught and baked into a pie, the always rebellious Peter takes great pleasure in regularly raiding McGregor's garden and, during one ill-fated raid, the madder than usual McGregor meets his end. The joy in the forests at laying claim to McGregor's plentiful garden is short-lived, however, as McGregor's sole heir, a great-nephew named Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), arrives to assess his property and prepare to sell it to raise enough funds for a toy store that will go toe-to-toe with his former employer, Harrod's.
The rest of Peter Rabbit is rather familiar, not because of Gluck's faithfulness to the source material but because Gluck reduces the film to nothing more a series of animated caricatures and clichés. Thomas will, of course, end up being a younger and more energetic variation on McGregor while, yes, he and Bea will become rather smitten with one another. This will leave Peter feeling threatened and, let's face it, we've already learned how he acts when he's feeling threatened.
In other words, everything that you really love about Potter's Peter Rabbit is set aside in favor of more action sequences and ineffective slapstick comedy.
Peter Rabbit is very nearly salvaged via the warm, vibrant performance of the delightful, and one should stress live-action, performance of Rose Byrne as Bea. So delightful is Byrne here that I'd likely find myself asking her about her rabbits should I ever interview her, though the same cannot be said for her human counterpart here as Gleeson, a fine actor in the right roles, is miscast and over-the-top sour as Thomas, whose appeal to Bea feels contrived and whose scenes with Peter may be appealing to an easily entertained five-year-old but are otherwise rather dreadful. James Corden, a mad talent, is simply too old to convincingly portray the young, spry Peter and he simply never captures the more classic, lovable side of Peter except in those adorable scenes when we learn that rabbits apologize by touching foreheads.
Will Gluck should be touching a lot of foreheads.
Mostly shot in Australia but set in England's Lake District, Peter Rabbit is gifted by Roger Ford's wondrous production design. However, the film's uneven soundtrack is inappropriate to the point of distraction with the likes of Len's "Steal My Sunshine," Rancid's "Time Bomb," Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me," and even Rachel Platten's "Fight Song."
There are moments in Peter Rabbit when I think that Gluck's onto something, but every time that happens it seems like Gluck pulls back on the film's charm and classicism in favor of yet another slapstick gag or faux conflict. This Peter Rabbit? It belongs in a rabbit pie.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic