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Bunny buffoonery - ‘Peter Rabbit’

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Bringing beloved characters to life is a tricky business. You have to balance respect for the source material with the necessity of new energy. You can’t tell the same old story, but you also bear a certain modicum of responsibility to that story.

The works of Beatrix Potter have been beloved by generations of children. Her books have delighted kids for decades, creating characters that inspire fond memories in young and old alike.

So if you’re going to make a movie about Peter Rabbit, well … be careful.

“Peter Rabbit” – directed by Will Gluck from a screenplay by Gluck and Rob Lieber – is, frankly, kind of a far cry from the sweet simplicity of Potter’s books. It is most definitely an update, if not really an upgrade; it’s an undeniably energetic story with good aesthetics and some decent jokes that nevertheless is lacking a certain something. It’s spirited, but there’s not a whole lot of soul.

Peter Rabbit (James Corden, “The Emoji Movie”) spends his days on a neverending quest to gain access to the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, “The Commuter”). With the help of his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody, TV’s “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries”) and his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, “The Cloverfield Paradox”) and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), he strives to partake of the vegetable wealth.

Serving as a sort of benevolent protector is Bea (Rose Byrne, “Insidious: The Last Key”), a sweet-tempered artist who dotes on the rabbits and shelters them from the full brunt of McGregor’s wrath.

But it all changes when McGregor shuffles off this mortal coil and his great-nephew Thomas (Domnhall Gleeson, “A Futile and Stupid Gesture”) enters the picture. Thomas, a tightly-wound toy store manager, makes his way to the countryside from London to get his uncle’s affairs in order. However, Peter and his cohort aren’t having any of it.

The result is full-on conflict between this new McGregor and the creatures of the forest. And in the middle of it all is Bea, with whom Thomas finds a connection; romance begins to blossom even as the battle between Peter and Thomas rages on.

Hijinks ensue. But when things get out of hand and go too far, it looks like no one – not even Peter and his friends – will get what they want; the rabbit is left with a decision to make. He has to grow up and do the right thing, even if it isn’t necessarily what he himself wants.

“Peter Rabbit” is fine. There’s fun to be had here. Ridiculous slapstick moments abound, with more than a few winks tipped toward the grown-ups in the audience. And there are nods to the more sedate source material, primarily through Bea (Bea, Beatrix – get it?), whose paintings of the waistcoat-wearing fauna evoke Potter’s lovely artwork.

But there’s also an underlying mean-spiritedness that doesn’t quite seem in keeping with the character’s origins. Yes, Peter Rabbit is mischievous – he’s a rabbit – but in this story, his mischief feels a bit more confrontational, as though rather than a means to an end, the misbehavior is an end unto itself. It’s not bad, per se – it’s just not particularly true to the source.

Acting alongside anthropomorphized CGI rodents can’t be easy, but you’d never know it from watching Byrne and Gleeson work. They’re a pair of consummate pros, with a gentle chemistry between them that works wonderfully. Byrne’s Bea is all sweetness and light, while Gleeson’s neuroses are constantly a-bubble. Also to Gleeson’s credit, he gleefully throws himself into the madcap physicality necessary to breathe life into the many confrontational mishaps between himself and his woodland enemies.

Vocally, Corden is a great fit for the wise-guy vision this film has for Peter; the character remains likable even as he behaves like a tremendous jerk. The rest of the voice cast is lovely as well – Moody works nicely as the stolid, stand-up Benjamin, while Robbie, Debicki and Ridley are all clearly having a blast – their interactions are among the film’s highlights.

The reality is that while we might mourn the sacrifice of some of Potter’s baseline gentility, a movie based around that sort of quiet simplicity almost certainly wouldn’t work. Not in 2018, anyway. Gluck and company have certainly pumped up the energy of the proceedings, and while some of those changes feel a bit detrimental, the overall effect is to create a story that will – if the youngsters at the screening I attended are any indication – capture the imaginations and tickle the funny bones of a new generation of children.

“Peter Rabbit” isn’t a great movie. It’s not going to become some kind of classic kiddie flick or anything like that. But it isn’t bad. It’s goofy and charming, with broad humor that will appeal across generations. Kids will dig it and adults will find a laugh or two themselves. All in all, there are worse ways for a family to spend a couple of hours.

[3.5 out of 5]

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