Parents crossing their fingers for another sly all-ages delight after “Paddington 2” will likely have their hopes dashed with “Peter Rabbit,” Will Gluck’s noisy, woefully self-aware adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s leporine protagonist.
Suffering under a tirelessly “hip” script by Gluck (2014’s “Annie”) and Rob Lieber, not to mention James Corden’s typical desperation to please in the title role, poor Peter is only slightly less appealing than “The Simpsons”‘ focus-grouped pup Poochie, and destined for an imminent journey back to his home planet while human star Domhnall Gleeson recovers from an exhausting battery of “Itchy & Scratchy”-style abuse.
Narrated by Margot Robbie, who also plays the voice of Flopsy, “Peter Rabbit” follows the misadventures of Peter, his three siblings Flopsy, Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) and their cousin Benjamin (Matt Lucas) as they try to steal vegetables from cranky old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) without finding themselves cooked in a pie. After McGregor suffers a heart attack, he bequeaths his farm to his fussy nephew Thomas (Gleeson), who knows little about gardening but harbors aspirations to sell the land in order to raise money for his own toy store.
Before Thomas can fully appraise the farm’s value, however, he finds himself waylaid: first by Peter and his animal friends, who feel entitled to share in the spoils of the McGregor garden, and then by Bea (Rose Byrne), a cheerful, slightly daft artist who lives next door, and encourages him to take a more bohemian approach with the local fauna. Soon, Thomas and Peter find themselves in a showdown for both the farm and for Bea — who the rabbit sees as a surrogate mother — turning the bucolic landscape of these two country homes into a battleground where the winner takes all, at all costs.
A big part of the appeal of Potter’s source material was that she anthropomorphized Peter and his kin with clothes and a humanlike home but still made them subject to their animal instincts; drawn from a ground-up perspective, there was an irresistible vulnerability that made them sympathetic even when getting into trouble. Gluck’s film wants to have its (carrot) cake and eat it too, classifying certain behaviors as naively animalistic (such as a rooster whose morning crow is, amusingly, a reflection of marveling at another new day) while transforming Peter and company into a willful, clumsy, obnoxious pack of mischief-makers.
Whatever argument the film hopes to make about the coexistence of man and animal feels repeatedly undermined when the bunnies not only pillage McGregor’s land of its vegetables but also make a mess of Thomas’ house and, eventually, attack him in his own bedroom.
Unfortunately, Gluck and Lieber “update” Potter’s timeless, unassuming tale by acknowledging many — too many — of the conventions and storytelling devices they’re otherwise shamelessly exploiting in their adaptation, pausing repeatedly to point out character flaws one by one, or articulating the emotional stakes of a moment in ways that even children will find on the nose.
But in trying to think through, and verbalize, every objection an audience member might have (from not giving Peter pants to making fun of a blackberry allergy), they undercut anything that could actually make the movie interesting, kowtowing to the broadest possible appeal by being conspicuously bland and safe.
There’s scarcely a moment that passes without the most obvious possible song playing, but Gluck goes the extra step and enlists everyone from Fort Minor to Vampire Weekend to re-record their lyrics to suit the characters, who sometimes sing their own story. The movie’s self-awareness eventually comes destructively full circle when the animals are called upon to actually communicate with the humans, and Gluck is either unsure or refuses to choose whether or not they can actually speak, further confusing the foundations of a story that really did not need to be this complicated.
As an actor, Corden has all of the appeal of late night’s least interesting talk show host — all enthusiasm, no nuance — and he delivers every one of Peter’s lines with the same energy and inflection: “Aren’t I as adorable as I think I am?” (He isn’t.) Much like with his “Carpool Karaoke” segments, where he makes the mistake of thinking he’s as interesting as the person in the passenger seat, he somehow steamrolls through each scene until his co-stars’ performances all run together, wasting the considerable charm and personality of three of Hollywood’s most gifted young actresses.
Only Byrne and (especially) Gleeson emerge with some sense of personality and dignity intact, owning Bea and Thomas’ one-dimensional quirks and turning their fledgling romance into a genuine emotional journey that becomes the film’s brightest spot.
Will Gluck isn’t a bad filmmaker, but by accident or design he seems to have catapulted himself into Hollywood’s family-filmmaker rotation with 2014’s “Annie” and cannot get himself unstuck. (At least he gives Byrne something to do this time, and finds her a co-star with some chemistry.) Beatrix Potter would likely have melted down at a version of her stories (and her hero) this crass and rambunctious, but the problem with Gluck’s adaptation is, ironically, that it’s too safe, splitting the difference between a loving tribute to a classic work of children’s literature and an irreverent piece of family-friendly entertainment.
“Peter Rabbit” feels obligated to point out all of the clichés that it’s rehashing, in the mistaken belief that doing so absolves itself from coming up with anything better to replace them.