Peter Rabbit. 2018.
Directed by Will Gluck.
Starring James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Colin Moody, Sia, Sam Neill, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Rose Byrne, Marianne Jean-Baptiste.
Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.
Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit is far from the garden-variety kiddie distraction this critic prematurely anticipated. Sony’s adaptation hops into theaters only a month after Paddington 2 – 2018’s uncontested family-first champion – and has been doubling-down on a curious ad campaign that prominently features a suggestive carrot-bedded Peter. All signs pointed to a career blunder for the likes of Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne, but in talent we should trust. Gluck and co-writer Rob Lieber draft a mature scrip with unexpected “sophistication” and heaps of essential self-awareness, complementing a mad garden siege rooted in good-natured fun.
Trulely – and thankfully – I’m as surprised as you are.
James Corden voices Peter Rabbit, a blue-jacketed talking bunny with an appetite for Mr. McGregor’s (Sam Neill) vegetation. That’s until the old “twit” passes away unexpectedly, and his farm is left to relative Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson). Peter thinks the garden will be a 24/7 buffet with old Mr. McGregor gone, but his newer, younger adversary is far more threatening than the grey-beard kook. Even with pro-animal neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne) in his corner and loyal Benji (Colin Moody) by his side, Peter has to work harder for his meals with this new-and-improved Mr. McGregor in town. Especially once Bea starts showing more interest in the dashing gentleman next door and not the fluffy thief stealing tomatoes.
Early promotional materials seemed to push away from Beatrix Potter’s more proper literary realm a bit too fiercely, to where this cinematic Peter Rabbit had me expecting something utterly brainless and forcibly “hip” to today’s comedy stylings. That, my friends, could not be farther from the truth given Peter’s family baggage and constant proving of worth. At the film’s core is a romance that buds between Bea and Mr. McGregor – Gleeson’s version, mind you – but Peter’s constant wedging is given reverence based on his mommy issues. No, this is *not* a movie about a digital rabbit who cockblocks a lonely farmer (as trailers suggested). Peter is grasping onto emotional ties where he can given the death of his mother and father. In that context, Gluck’s position is sweet and sincere – love shared is infinitely better than love lost.
That said, Peter Rabbit is a silly, slapstick tale that features everything from rake-to-the-face gags to rapping birds (a flippin’ Fort Minor cover, for gosh sakes). Babe references included, meta winks at the camera around every turn. Peter Rabbit cleverly – and constantly – acknowledges how fantastical heightened conflicts become, none better than Mr. McGregor screaming at woodland creatures only to stop and confirm his actions are fifty shades of mad. One minute an upright-walking pig in a purple velvet smoking jacket is explaining his diet, the next Peter’s gang dodges explosions like a scene from Saving Private Ryan as McGregor chucks tiny dynamite sticks with intent to kill. Sam Neil’s butt crack, electrified doorknobs, Bea’s empowering paint sessions to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” – this movie’s plot sounds like the rantings of an asylum patient.
Domhnall Gleeson’s casting as a stick-in-the-mud Harrod’s employee turned delusional home defender is, quite possibly, the year’s greatest gift to screen. Imagine if General Hux was fired by Kylo Ren, inherited a country estate and started bird watching to impress a pretty girl. That’s the best way I can describe the scene-chewing, effortlessly emotive, mentally unstable character that Gleeson plays with a workman’s charisma. Rose Byrne wonderfully riffs off Gleeson’s tightwad in the midst of loosening – a hippie-dippie artist type who worships nature’s bounty – but Gleeson is a champion high-energy loon. Typically whilst being kicked by his furry competition, or pummeled with crops, or launched via electrocution, or covered with bear traps…you get my drift. He’s a charming psychopath with obsessive tendencies, always bent out of shape and squealing rants with the utmost imbalance of cool. His blackberry allergy resuscitation rise – nothing else needs to be said.
The cast itself is fitting, but most other names are reserved for vocal talents. Corden as the cocky little shit known as Peter Rabbit, a fast-talking schemester who struggles to cope with emotions so he overcompensates around every turn (a breeze for Corden). Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley as Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail respectively, Peter’s acrobatic sisters who trapeze around and run backup whenever needed (Ridley’s Cotton-Tail a destructive favorite). I mean, and Sia as hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle? There’s a ton of talent behind Peter’s fellow forest inhabitants, and bless their souls for delivering pun after pun as far as nature zingers are concerned. None better than a comically tortured rooster who fully realizes an existential crisis, fulfilled by the sun’s appearance each day until wishing for death’s release upon his newfound fatherly exhaustion.
Hold on. Can we talk about how dark Peter Rabbit is?
I, myself, find it deviously refreshing to see a children’s film enact murderous plans with such little restraint. This is after old Mr. McGregor has already died on screen, mid threat as he informs a captured Peter he’s going to be eaten in a pie just like his father (A FLASHBACK WE SEE IN ANIMATED FORM). Neill’s McGregor suffers a heart attack, flops to the ground, is taken away by the “ice cream truck with lights,” and then Peter boasts about KILLING HIS ENEMY (after poking McGregor in the eye). Later on, after Peter thinks he’s killed Gleeson’s McGregor, HE GIDDILY BRAGS ABOUT HAVING KILLING TWO MCGREGORS. At one point, narration suggests there’s a fine line between a hero and a lunatic, intended to describe Peter – but what about adding PRIDEFUL MURDERER to that list? There’s such a morose sense of zaniness in rooting for a rabbit who so vocally advocates killing, which to me adds a layer of what-are-we-watching hilarity to it all. Commit me if you’d like.
Also, let’s just put it out there – a lot of Gluck’s jokes benefit from an unanticipated amount of sexuality. Like, start with the posters – why is Peter Rabbit giving us that look? Translate to film and you’ve got a joke about Peter wanting to stick a carrot up old man McGregor’s bum, a pickup attempt scene where Peter lays seductively by a fire whilst hitting on a female mate (musical accompaniment on point), nipple references, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle getting off on the excitement of electrocution (literally) – Gluck isn’t here to make a farts-and-boogers throwaway. Parents have so much to hope their children don’t pick up on, starting with blackened death references and continuing with the fact that Peter Rabbit is being promoted as – for lack of a better meme – this bunny who…you know…the “F” word.
On the negative side, I must admit that Sony Pictures Animation does struggle at times to make us believe Peter and his cohorts exist in the same world as Gleeson and Byrne. Obviously, we know they do not – but a film like Paddington 2 saw no trouble inserting its talking bear into London’s hustle and bustle. There are times when Peter and Benji look superimposed over landscapes, specifically during a short train-chasing sequence. Their appearances are cartoonish and cute, yet not of the seamless pixelation that other animated films have been able to achieve. Especially when Peter is darting between city chaos like walking legs, which is where images break down a bit and appear choppy.
Then again, this realization is a testament to how well Gleeson and Byrne are able to carry scenes without Corden’s lead thumper present. Gleeson especially is able to bust out physical comedy alongside old-school greats like an episode of The Honeymooners, while Byrne remains consciously oblivious to Peter’s mischief despite it being enacted before her very eyes (the fruit barrage, for one). Gluck’s direction of performances milks the inherent nuttiness of scenes with or without Peter’s hyper attitudes. Gleeson’s depressed violin playing, Gleeson’s assault of a life-size teddy, Gleeson and Peter’s malicious deathblows – have I mentioned how enormously endearing Domhnall Gleeson is?
I can say with great enjoyment and utter confusion that Peter Rabbit is a jolly good time for movie-loving families with finely tuned comedics for any age demographic. Youngins have plenty of food fights and snatch-and-grab action, while parental units can laugh their way through deep ruminations on life’s crushing weight that find themselves represented by barnyard players. This ain’t another Beatrix Potter bedtime story, for better or worse. Undeniably goofy and bizarrely constructed, Will Gluck has no problem breaking the fourth wall to let characters question why rabbits wear rabbit-sized clothing or such – but that’s this film’s cheeky charm. Hopefully you find such mockery as refreshingly honest as this gobsmacked critic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ /Movie: ★★★★