After the delightfully British and practically perfect film that was Paddington 2, a new bar was set for live-action family films. Paddington 2 captured every aspect of predictability, silliness, and endearment that you look for in a family film, finding a formula that honestly couldn’t have been bettered in any way. Unfortunately for Peter Rabbit, the live-action adaptation of the classic Beatrix Potter story got the unlucky job of being the family film to follow Paddington 2. That being said, even if you hadn’t seen Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit would still be a problematic and thankfully forgettable trip to the theater.
Peter Rabbit adapts Beatrix Potter’s most popular story about a mischievous young rabbit and his feud with the grumpy farmer, Mr. McGregor. As you can guess, the film changes things up, finding a way to make Mr. McGregor a young man and turning Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton Tail, and Benjamin Bunny into slapstick comedians. The film begins when the old Mr. McGregor keels over and the Mr. McGregor, his nephew, moves in. A classic feud arises between Peter and the new McGregor as they battle over the vegetable garden. Things escalate when a romance is born between McGregor and Bea, Peter and the other rabbits’ human best friend. Peter gets jealous and the battle begins.
James Corden has recently been discovered as having a fantastic voice, and along with two other films this year, his voice takes on the leading role. Corden is someone who you can tell has a lot of fun, and since his fun is so clearly reflected in his voice, it’s impossible to not love any character he takes on. Such is the case with Peter Rabbit. Peter Rabbit is a surprisingly complicated protagonist, so having a voice that is immediately relatable and lovable is key. Corden plays a large role is making this film work in the areas where it does.
Also doing great voice-work in this film is the trio of Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and Margot Robbie – three of the biggest new names in the past five years. These three voice the fun characters of Cotton Tail, Mopsy, and Flopsy, respectively. Just having these three in the film added a sense of fun and relevancy that was needed. Finally, for live action performances, Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson played Bea and Mr. McGregor. Gleeson got the bigger part of the two, and with the role, he continued to prove his versatility, adding comedy to his repertoire.
When it comes to performances, either live-action or voice-over, this movie is fantastic. The casting is great, and though it was clear that Margot Robbie’s star power made her awkwardly double as the film’s narrator, it did work. With a cast like this and source material as beloved and valuable as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, it seemed like this was almost guaranteed to be a good movie. Unfortunately, when the screenplay was written by Rob Lieber and Will Gluck, and Gluck sat down in the director’s chair, the film’s potential fell apart.
The screenplay for this film is flawed in ways that are fairly untraditional. It’s predictable, but with a story like this and the genre to which it belongs, predictability is not only okay, but somewhat expected. Where the film runs into the most problems is where it tried to be unpredictable, or rather, attempts to stray from what you would expect it to be. The decision to make Mr. McGregor young is fine, and even the romance between the Beatrix Potter character works. The problem is how they decided to do this – by killing of the old Mr. McGregor. While it was already an odd and potentially unnecessary decision, the method by which they killed his character is surprisingly morbid and certainly not child friendly. Frankly, I was surprised the MPAA allowed a PG rating.
This morbidity is present in at least one other place in the film, but mostly, the level of violence in this film is surprising. Like I said earlier, slapstick is expected and plenty of PG-appropriate slapstick is present in the film. That said, there are several instances where an animation-style stunt is pulled off, but in live-action is comes across as much more violent and almost not child-friendly. This was the case with several elements in the film, where Gluck was constantly walking the line of controversy. There was even one moment where Peter says something potentially offensive, then breaks the fourth wall to give a disclaimer. It’s weird, it’s controversial, and it really doesn’t belong in a film like this.
A family film like this where main characters are animals and everything’s predictable are often considered some of the easiest films to make. While they are often formulaic, audience’s expectations for this formula are so precise that while there’s a recipe, it’s pretty hard to get it just right. Peter Rabbit does not get it right. In fact, the best thing that this movie does is prove just how great Paddington 2 was. If Paddington 2 is still playing near you, go to that instead.
I give Peter Rabbit a 5.5/10.