‘Peter Rabbit’ Turns a Children’s Classic Into a Frat Party

Peter Rabbit” takes Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s classic and removes everything that is beloved about it, replacing the heart and charm of the original character with dynamite and gags. Gone is the lighthearted, wise tone of the source material, and in its place is a rabbit pack designed for the era of frat parties and video games. The movie plays as if the filmakers decided it all had to be dumbed down in order to be entertaining, but instead the film is clunky and tries too hard to survive on cheap laughs. 

James Corden voices Peter Rabbit, who romps through the lush English countryside with his siblings Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and a cousin, Benjamin (Colin Moody). Led by Peter and his reckless spirit, they bask in sneaking into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neil) and eating his vegetables. Dark history lingers as well since it was Mr. McGregor who killed the rabbits’ father years before. Their sole protector is the kind, aspiring artist Bea (Rose Byrne), who scolds McGregor for hounding the rabbits. But soon McGregor drops dead from a heart attack and the rabbits and other animals take over his house, literally throwing a farmland version of a frat party. Back in the city, the property is given over to a nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). A Londoner recently denied a promotion at his beloved toy store Thomas moves reluctantly to the countryside and soon develops a pathological hatred for the rabbits. But once he meets Bea they are both smitten and he must hide his true feelings about the local wildlife. Peter of course won’t let Thomas take the garden and Bea, so he schemes to make Thomas’s life hell as Thomas plans to get rid of the rabbits however he can, even if it means using explosives.

What this movie does is essentially take the characters from the original books by Beatrix Potter and transplant them into a modern, slapstick ride. While slapstick can be fun, this adaptation lacks real charm and never attempts to offer anything more to both its young and older audiences. The plot zig-zags along from one gimmick to the next, never building a real character out of Peter Rabbit. As written by Rob Lieber and director Will Gluck, the animals become cute but annoying and the humans are beyond vapid (Byrne plays Bea unintentionally in a way that makes her like a loon). The advertisements try to sell the angle here as Peter Rabbit the rebel, but he’s not so much a rebel as he is a jerk. At one point Gluck, the director of “Friends with Benefits,” has Peter almost stick a carrot up Mr. McGregor’s bent posterior. The other rabbits are written as vapid, dumb teens. It lacks the wit and inventiveness of something like Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which takes liberties with a Roald Dahl book about animals at war with farmers, but maintains the essence and makes it fulfilling for both kids and grown-ups. In “Peter Rabbit” we never truly inhabit the world of the animals, everyone feels like a cameo because the movie is more focused on gags without the substance of a good story.

Interestingly enough, it is in the side characters where the humor does work at times. During the moments when the script goes for satire it works. Benjamin laments that he never loses weight even though he “only eats salads.” There’s a hilarious rooster who awakens to crow every morning astounded the sun has returned, when he discovers he’s the father of several chicks he garbles, “I’ll have to, you know, be involved!” The best scene is the very first one, when a group of birds fly into frame singing a riff on those typical Disney songs about finding beauty in yourself only to have Peter slam through them, ruining the number. Sia is also likeable as the voice of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, here turned into a porcupine who approaches an electric fence for the sheer thrill.  

These brief little gifts are within a movie that’s full of repetitious shots of Thomas chasing the rabbits, the rabbits electrocuting Thomas with his own fence wiring, and Bea somehow not noticing a TNT battle erupting in her back lawn as she paints. Some of the pop songs thrown into the soundtrack are either too on the nose or don’t fit (such as Peter robbing veggies to a techno “Tu Vuo’ Fa l’Americano”).  The homely world of the books is reduced to man hates rabbits, man tries to blow them up. It’s as if someone attempted to make “Charlotte’s Web” into an action movie while leaving out the actual lessons or ideas. Last year’s “Captain Underpants” had a much better combination of humor, action and things to say. The recent “Paddington” movies also featured stellar special effects but charm and intelligence too.

The bunnies and scenery do look good in “Peter Rabbit,” but it’s all just looks and explosions. The movie does what it came to do. It will keep the kids entertained for an hour and a half, but it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t grow on you, instead you grow out of it.

Peter Rabbit” opens Feb. 9 in theaters nationwide.