“Peter Rabbit” is the second live-action film of 2018 about a British anthropomorphic animal in a blue jacket based on a series of children’s books — the other being “Paddington 2.” I haven’t seen “Paddington 2,” but I have seen “Peter Rabbit,” and it is easily my pick for best live-action film about a British anthropomorphic animal in a blue jacket for the year of 2018.
Based on characters created by Beatrix Potter in the early 1900’s, “Peter Rabbit” is about a rabbit (James Corden) and his jacket-wearing family who live in the British countryside. When a grumpy Londoner (Domhnall Gleeson) moves in and threatens the harmony they have with their benevolent human neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), an interspecies slapstick war ensues. It’s a simple enough premise that never loses sight of this focused story, but the ride is wild and uneven.
It should go without saying that I am not the target demographic for “Peter Rabbit,” but I don’t think children are the target demographic either — it’s charming and the rabbits are cute, but might lose them with its self-referential and, often, wordy jokes. To its credit, it makes for some genuine laughs here and there when it isn’t desperately trying to be egregiously stupid for the sake of appealing to children; on that note, being a film for children is not and never has been a valid excuse for it to be bad — kids can have great movies too (see: “Paddington”)! Some uniquely clever comedic timing and visual gags are among the ways this movie can help older audiences stomach this Sony Pictures mess which, while not a total trainwreck, is one that must be entered with an understanding that it gives absolutely zero care to what constitutes as “plausible” in this fantasy world.
The best way to enjoy “Peter Rabbit” is, ultimately, by shutting your brain off. Even by popular children’s movie standards, it’s uncannily dense to the point of annoyance. The inciting incident comes in the form of elderly death. Not 10 minutes in, the elder McGregor has a heart attack and dies while wrangling Peter by his ears; this isn’t met with shock or sorrow but immediate celebration (read: Forced party scene wherein some hundreds of animals dance to non-diegetic soundtracks of artists too numerous to recall). Folks, our kids deserve better. We’re told Peter Rabbit dislikes the new McGregor not because he wants to kill him and his family — that would be too sensical — but because he sees Bea as a mother figure. “Peter Rabbit” desperately wants to be a comedy to appeal to older audiences, but unlike superior films of this ilk like “Paddington” or “Shrek,” its snideness and unwillingness to be sincere is at times insufferable.
Once your brain is on low power mode, “Peter Rabbit” begins to make sense, in a really weird and likely incidental way. Gleeson (God bless) is a true artist, and maybe he thinks the movie he’s in is a joyous take on one of Britain’s beloved blue-coated children’s characters, but it’s more probable he recognizes how dumb it is. This is great, because he pulls no punches in his performance. It’s obvious he’s enjoying himself, be it through hammy meltdowns that break his obsessively tidy facade and reveal his neurotic core or pure slapstick romp feuds with CGI bunnies. I can’t even get upset at how ridiculous it is that he lobs dynamite at Peter and his family to rid them from his garden, or that Bea, a mere 10 yards away, can’t hear the explosions (which is explained rather brilliantly or stupidly — I haven’t decided yet — by the fact that she’s listening to “Fight Song” really loudly). In another scene, Peter, his cousin Benjamin Bunny and the new McGregor have to buddy up at trek across London to return to the countryside. They travel by hand car, airplane and all manners of locomotion in a bizzare montage that throws time out the window in favor of hilarious surrealism. It’s moments like that that make the 93 minutes bearable.
Verdict: “Peter Rabbit” is a curious adaptation of its source material. Filled to the brim with top 40 hits and flaccid jokes that might make some kids exhale out of their nose at best, it isn’t exactly a good children’s movie. Rather, its strengths come from just how dopey it is, which older audiences might appreciate a bit more.