Peter Rabbit has remained a fixture in children’s literature for over a century, but the character has made very few appearances in other media, relative to properties like Winnie the Pooh. Now, Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit is reportedly the first feature film take on Beatrix Potter’s work to get approval from her estate. That said, while the live-action/animation hybrid capably delivers joke after joke throughout its entire runtime, it is not quite as effective at capturing the soul of the source material and offering up a sense of nostalgia or warmth in the spirit of the books that inspired it.
We open on Peter (James Corden) running through the forest as the de facto “hero” of his family, which includes Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Benjamin (Matt Lucas), and their human friend, Bea (Rose Byrne). Peter is on top of the world, but when unexpected circumstances end his rivalry with mean, old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), he soon finds a new competition in the form of the younger and faster Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a meticulous, type-A jerk with no patience for the rabbits’ mischief. What follows is a battle of wits and wills as Peter and the new McGregor duke it out for Bea’s full affection, unwilling to share her love.
It needs to be said that Peter Rabbit works better as a comedy than it does as a pure adaptation of the books that inspired its story. There are definitely moments of heart, but the film seems far more interested in going for the laugh than moments of raw emotion. If you are familiar with Will Gluck’s work on films like Easy A and Friends with Benefits, then you can go into it with a better sense of the director’s tone and style; lots of fast-talking characters put in situations where every possible joke is thrown at the wall to see what sticks. The film definitely hits its best highs when it embraces its inherent sense of absurdity and surrealism (such as a delightful third-act montage involving Peter and Thomas McGregor), but sometimes this tendency towards weirdness doesn’t quite work, such as a joke about a pig putting on lip balm.
Amid all of the comedy, one specific element of the film worth homing in on its Domhnall Gleeson as Thomas McGregor. Peter Rabbit gets top billing, but it’s Gleeson who commit his entire body to the film and gets some of the best laughs. Between a scene in which the rabbits repeatedly electrocute him around the house to a scene in which he steps on a series of rakes in beautiful Sideshow Bob fashion, he commits to everything in a manner that’s reminiscent of the best Buster Keaton movies. If nothing else, Gleeson is an old-fashioned comedic powerhouse who makes the film worth seeing.
Many of the vocal performances are similarly entertaining, particularly among the female supporting cast. Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley (who embraces an insanity that we have never seen from her before as Cottontail) are all standouts. Oddly enough, however, it’s James Corden who appears to be the weak link on this cast. It is not that he is necessarily bad as Peter, but his familiar fast-talking shtick feels somewhat out-of-place by comparison to the cuteness that everyone else brings to his or her role.
Despite all of those laughs and performances, Peter Rabbit never ascends to the emotional heights of other movies of a similar ilk. By its very nature, Peter Rabbit will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Paddington and Paddington 2. Both are classic British children’s characters, and both approach their source materials in an attempt to make something earnest and non-cynical. In that regard, Peter Rabbit sometimes fails to induce the same sense of amiability that other movies of a similar ilk have managed to accomplish.
Part of this is due to the tone that permeates the story. Peter Rabbit often feels more like a spoof of the Peter Rabbit source material than a straight take on the classic source material. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it means that adults with an arguably more cynical sense of humor (or just anyone who is not as intimately familiar with Peter Rabbit) may end up enjoying him or herself more than a purist looking for something that he or she grew up with. It very much feels more like a movie made for outsiders to the source material, and whether or not that is a bad thing will depend entirely on your taste.
Peter Rabbit is better as a straight comedy than an adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s beloved books. It is full of laughs, but never captures its source’s warmth. If you are in the mood for a good laugh with the rest of your family, then Peter Rabbit will likely deliver. However, if you are looking for something that will invoke a century’s worth of classic children’s literature, then this might not be the film for you.