We’re only six weeks into the new year and Hollywood has already delivered two promising family films to brighten up these dreary winter months. In January, Paddington 2 made a strong debut and claimed 2018’s family movie crown. It won over audiences, impressed critics (100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and made loads of money. Paddington 2 is a tough act to follow, but director Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit adaptation is up for the challenge. With a great cast and a big commercial push by Sony, Peter Rabbit sits poised to capture Paddington 2’s crown.
Peter Rabbit (ebulliently voiced by James Corden) lives under a tree with his three sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley), and his cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody). They spend their days pillaging fruits and vegetables from their human neighbour Mr. McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden. Peter’s father was captured and killed on one of these veggie runs, and with his mother gone too, it’s up to him to take care of the family. Luckily, their other neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne), has a heart of gold. Bea looks out for the local animals and grouch-shames farmer McGregor into being kind to all of the forest’s critters. Despite Bea’s request, McGregor captures Peter with the intention of baking him into a pie, but the crotchety old man keels over dead before he can live out his Martha Stewart-esque pie baking fantasy.
With the old man out of the way, Peter has free reign over the garden and McGregor’s home. But it isn’t long before McGregor’s nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives to carry on the feud. Thomas is Old-man McGregor 2.0; a younger, craftier, and more vindictive version who thrives on order. With Thomas, Peter may have met his match, and the two compete in a series of escalating confrontations meant to drive their rival away.
Sometimes filmmakers are so skilled at making movie magic look mundane that we take their work for granted. And this is certainly the case in Peter Rabbit because a film about an animated bunny feuding with a flesh and blood human can go wrong in so many ways. Director Will Gluck, cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., and the visual effects team do a marvellous job of bringing Peter Rabbit’s storybook world to life.
A host of vibrant characters inhabit Peter’s world, each one an impressive visual feat. Birds, foxes, and porcupines all receive a moment in the spotlight and help make their forest home come alive on screen. What’s most impressive is how expressive they are without the animators turning them into human/animal hybrids like Mickey Mouse; the rabbits look like actual rabbits. They’re so lifelike and insanely cute I would almost put them in the same VFX class as Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book creatures. Unlike The Jungle Book, these animals also sport clothes. And let me assure you that watching a pig wear a blazer, turtleneck, and pocket square never gets old.
The animals have personality traits associated with their species and the writers takes a page from the BoJack Horseman comedy handbook, juxtaposing their humanity with their feral instincts; a debonair pig goes into a Cookie Monster-like eating frenzy anytime food comes his way. There’s also a deer that gets, wait for it…Caught in the headlights. These may sound like dad jokes but the bits land more times than not. Credit the expressive character animations, solid editing, and pitch-perfect vocal performances for keeping the laughs rolling in throughout the 93-minute running time.
This is Peter Rabbit’s/James Corden’s movie but Domhnall Gleeson is the MVP. I don’t know if this movie works without Gleeson holding things together as the human antagonist. He spends a large chunk of this movie standing around pretending to talk to CGI animals. In the real world, Gleeson is acting against reflective balls on sticks meant to track the pint-sized character’s position in the frame. To put it plainly: without Gleeson’s performance tuned in to just the right frequency, the animated critters come across feeling fake and tonally out of sync.
In terms of acting, Gleeson goes for broke. His comedic delivery is pitched all the way up to Jim Carrey levels. In one scene — ripped from the Looney Tunes greatest hits catalogue — Thomas keeps stepping on rakes that pop up and crack him in the face. Gleeson shifts gears from these broad comedy gestures to ultimately connecting with the audience as a sympathetic character. This man can act, and as a movie nerd, I’ve enjoyed watching his career take off over the past few years. I suspect Gleeson is transforming into that special breed of actor who elevates the quality of every movie he appears in.
Corden is solid in the lead role. He plays Peter with a charming bluster; he’s bold, clever, but not as devious and mean-spirited as Bugs Bunny. Peter wants to take care of his family and the McGregors are merely an obstacle to doing so. Peter has the same gusto and quick-fire line delivery as some of the best animated heroes and he’s a fun character to root for. But, even though I would watch a Peter Rabbit sequel, Peter isn’t as memorable as the characters in my favourite animated films.
Peter Rabbit is the ideal family movie. It’s charming, inoffensive, and packed with laughs. Just be warned: don’t go in expecting a straight up retelling of the classic Beatrix Potter tales. If you’re open to the film’s modern spin, then the slapstick humour and impressive production values may just win you over. Peter Rabbit earns bonus points for an exceptional comedic performance by Gleeson and for the script being so much wittier than it actually needs to be. Parents can enjoy watching Peter and his zany friends just as much as their children — at least until the kids stream it for the 100th time.
- Release Date: 2/9/2018