Director: Will Gluck
Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Over the past month, my heart has warmed considerably to children's entertainment. After being bowled over by Babe, Paddington and Paddington 2 swept in with a double decker blow of adorable earnestness that laid me flat. I've always been open to watching kids' movies, but I'm typically a hard sell, so I was wondering if my resistance was finally beginning to crumble. So Peter Rabbit came at the perfect time to see if my dulled resistance just needed a non-masterpiece as a whetstone.
As an updated feature based on a classic British children's story, it has a very similar pedigree to Paddington, so what could go wrong?
Peter Rabbit begins with a story you know well. Mischievous bunny rabbit Peter (James Corden), with the support of his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie, for some reason), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, for slightly more understandable reasons), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, for no reason whatsoever) among other woodland creatures, sneaks into the garden of Old Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill, for a reason so nanoscopic that scientists are still debating its existence) to steal some delicious vegetables. So far, so familiar. Until the part where Peter Rabbit tries to shove a carrot up the old man's ass and then he dies of a heart attack. Yeah, I don't remember Beatrix Potter jotting down that one.
Bring in the younger, sexier cast! The rabbits have always been cared for by McGregor's sensitive painter neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), but when McGregor's fussy, city-boy nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) moves in, the rabbits are frustrated to discover that the two are falling in love. Thomas has managed to convince Bea that he is a wildlife lover, but in the meantime, he is engaging in a war against Peter Rabbit and his cronies, attempting to keep them off the property he has inherited and is attempting to sell.
Also, his laundry bill must be insane, considering all the produce that gets smashed into the fabric.
Peter Rabbit is actually two movies that are constantly warring with one another. The first is a delightful romantic comedy starring a pair absurdly underrated and hilarious actors. The second is an execrable "family friendly" hash of violent slapstick and clunky gags starring irritating CGI monstrosities. Peter Rabbit obviously only desires to be the latter, but the former keeps accidentally slipping in and reminding you how pleasurable this whole experience had the opportunity to be.
But let's focus on that good - perhaps even great - movie for the time being. Domhnall Gleeson is in terrific form here, flipping between big physical comedy and subtle, character-based humor without breaking a sweat. There's a sequence where he attempts to understand birdwatching that frankly belongs on his future lifetime achievement reel. Rose Byrne is given considerably less to do, considering that her character is clueless of the entire plot, but she provides an excellent foil for Gleeson's antics, and has a couple standout moments of her own.
The human plot is so swell that a huge belly laugh line is even given to a taxi driver character who appears in two scenes. There's more than enough to go around here.
But I literally can't even find a proper still of Rose Byrne, so that just goes to show how little the filmmakers value this film's strongest elements.
Ay, there's the rub. There's no way Peter Rabbit wasn't going to be about Peter Rabbit, but when he hops into the frame he brings with him everything that's unbearable and generic about the movie. At least the anthropomorphic animal CGI is mostly fine (save for one scene involving the rabbits in a football huddle, which we see at an angle that's downright criminal in its ugliness), but the second he opens his mouth you know you've been locked into an iron maiden of subpar children's movie material.
James Corden's performance style is what makes him perfect for a late night show: every word out of his mouth drips with the desperate demand that you find him charming and lovable. Honestly, this isn't a liability for a kids' flick, but when you combine that with the fact that the character is an unmitigated asshole, it's incredibly grating, like rubbing sandpaper directly on your eyes. For some reason, the screenwriters seem to think that the height of comedy is having a character make a joke, then immediately undermine it by either explaining it to death or making a quip about just how wacky they're being.
Every gag is a one-two punch; an unfunny joke, then a follow-up that saps whatever minuscule scrap of energy it had to its name. Then there are all the requisite cliché details that come with being a movie for children in the 2010's: a million unnecessary dance sequences, random jokes "for the adults" (including a horribly misguided "pour one out for a fallen homie" gag that is repeated more than once, for heaven's sake), and an obnoxiously trendy soundtracks full of on-the-nose needle drops, including the most inescapable songs of the day (most egregiously "Feel It Still" by Portugal the Man, which is the most dangerously saccharine earworm this side of "Can't Stop the Feeling!" and "Happy").
None of them are BAD songs per se, but you wouldn't want to meet one in a darkened alley.
All of this is interspersed with incredibly violent slapstick that is just plain cruel (there's a gag about inflicting anaphylactic shock that has no business being in a movie not directed by, say, Quentin Tarantino) and occasionally nonsensical (a scene about McGregor being pelted with fruit while attempting to hold a conversation with Bea really tests the limits of Rose Byrne's ability to play oblivious).
In short, almost nothing about these scenes that form 70 percent of the movie works on any level. There's the occasional spot of brilliance, like the 2D animated flashback sequence that uses the aesthetic of the original novels to tremendous effect, or a montage of Old McGregor's unhealthy choices that shows the filmmakers probably at least saw the trailer to Paddington. But in the end, it's all for naught. It's a noxious, irritating experience made even more painful by the fact that it mars what could have honestly been a pretty fun movie about two humans navigating a relationship, though it's quite self-evident that that was in no way the movie anybody wanted to make.
I'm happy those splendid moments are there, but there's no way they're worth sitting though the rest of this drivel. Also, on the Babe front, there's a "that'll do, pig" joke that made me want to screech with righteous fury. Rule of thumb: Don't strive to remind audiences of movies that blow yours so far out of the water you've entered the Earth's orbit.
TL;DR: Peter Rabbit is an irritating kids' movie, with just enough of a much better movie peeking through that it's not entirely a slog.
Rating: 4/10Word Count: 1170