Director: Will Gluck
Cast: James Corden, Fayssal Bazzi, Domhnall Gleeson, Sia
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“Please look after this bear,” read the note accompanying one red-hatted mammal in a certain London train station several years ago, and it’s a message that the filmmakers of Paddington took to heart, delivering a movie with heart, humour and – most of all – a deep respect for its source material. Peter Rabbit could have done with a similar note – it’s as far from Paddington as North Basildon is from Peru.
Directed by Will Gluck (Easy A), the animation brings Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters to the screen – not that you’d know they were beloved, judging by the way this dire film treats them. It introduces us to Peter (James Corden) and the gang, including Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia) and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley), as they all live around the house of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), and try to get away with stealing his veg. So far, so recognisable, except that for some reason, this version of Peter Rabbit isn’t anything like the cosy warmth of Potter’s books, replacing her blue-coated hero with a fast-talking, sassy rascal with a mean streak – it’s like someone halfway through writing the movie accidentally mixed up Beatrix Potter with a copy of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
The result is as jarring as it sounds, as Mr. McGregor passes away, leaving his cruel son, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), to inherit the estate. He takes the defence of the manor to an extreme degree, sparking a war of one-upmanship with the floppy-eared intruder – much to the bemusement of Beatrix herself (Rose Byrne), who lives next door and likes to draw Peter and co. in her spare time.
The cast aren’t bad, by any means – Gleeson doing manic nastiness is always a treat, while Rose Byrne is charming as the open-hearted author. Director Will Gluck, meanwhile, has an eye for physical slapstick that the duo embrace (watch out for some bits involving electric shocks). But at some point, someone decided to put a Peter Rabbit sticker on the whole affair, and every following decision feels like a woeful misstep. It’s epitomised by James Corden, who has proven many times before he’s a good actor, but whose cocky brand of humour leaves Peter Rabbit not only unrecognisable but crucially unlikeable – one scene where he intentionally pelts blackberries at Thomas, who has an allergic reaction, is not only actively horrible behaviour, but is also irresponsible in setting in example to its audience.
So much thought seems to have gone into making Peter such a unkind figure (complete with post-modern self-awareness) that things like plot and character fall by the wayside; a relationship that blossoms between Thomas and Beatrix only seems to occur because convention dictates it should, as she supposedly isn’t smart enough to tell that he’s a bully pretending to be nice. Gleeson finds a sympathetic side to the young McGregor, but that doesn’t earn him a winning romance. The result is a remarkably misjudged animated outing that looks nice – the rabbits are well animated – but unfortunately resembles nothing like the thing it explicitly claims to be. Like a kid trying too hard to be cool, Peter Rabbit is cynical where it should be sweet, and isn’t anywhere near funny enough to get away with that cold attitude. Peter Rabbit needed a note at the beginning asking someone to look after it more carefully. Now, it just needs a warning sticker.
Peter Rabbit is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 7-day free trial.
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