Beatrix Potter, the famed children’s book author and illustrator got the Hollywood treatment in the 2006 biographical film, Miss Potter starring an Oscar winning, pre-made over Renee Zellweger. Potter’s most famous creation, however, the lovable critter at the center of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, first published privately in 1902 has had to wait more than a century to make his own headlining journey to the big screen.
An animated version of Peter Rabbit was composted onto live action shots for Miss Potter and there have been several television versions, but director Will Gluck (Easy A) and Columbia Pictures have succeeded in delivering the first mainstream film adaptation of one of the bestselling books of all time.
Making use of animation and live action, with heavy doses of CGI, Peter Rabbit updates Potter’s beloved story for an international, mass market audience. Old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill,) the famed antagonist in the Potter books bites the dust in an early scene, paving the way for a smarty, thoroughly modern reimagination of the Peter Rabbit fable as a father-son tale of redemption.
Peter (voiced by The Late Late Show’s James Corden) and his sisters, Flopsy, (Margot Robbie, also doubling as the narrator,) Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) have been warned by their mother never to stray into the McGregor estate to avoid ending up as mincemeat in one of his famous pies. But mum and dad are both dead and gone and Peter is made up of sterner and more adaptable stuff than his forbearers.
Emboldened by his family and friends, Peter Rabbit makes several raids on the McGregor property and is encouraged by neighbor, Bea, a free-spirited artiste played with naïve incredulity by Aussie actress, Rose Byrne. To gift some more credibility to the film, and perhaps create a world that is inspired not only by Hollywood dollars, but also by Potter’s vivid imagination, Bea’s paintings consist of illustrations rendered by the author.
Inheriting the expansive McGregor property is great nephew, Thomas (a sour Domhnall Gleeson,) smarting after being passed over for a promotion at work. He does not particularly take to animals straying into his territory and begins to entertain ways of getting rid of them. A weird romance develops between Bea and Thomas and the animals watch in self-inflicted horror as their favorite human succumbs to the affections of their latest nemesis.
Something has to give, and the rest of the film evolves or devolves (depending on what part of the age spectrum one belongs in) into a Tom and Jerry meets Home Alone series of gags that straddle the line between slapstick and wry humor. Kids will embrace all of the violent back and forth that come out of this creative direction, and it is just as well, but adults may find themselves indifferent. It’s all been done before.
In between all of the man-on-man rivalry and the explosions and the electrocutions- Bea is blissfully unaware for the most part-, the screenplay, credited to Gluck and Rob Lieber, finds time to throw in a teachable moment, one that encourages the kids that sharing a thing isn’t losing it and everyone, no matter their differences, can find a way to live together in peace.
Peter Rabbit looks easy on the eye with warm, inviting colors that draw viewers in into the rural but modern setting. The critters are digitally rendered but look and feel real and the chemistry and banter between Peter and his gang powers the film and gives it a nice edge.
Peter Rabbit isn’t nearly the classic that Miss Potter would have hoped for but it is a pleasant, enjoyable yarn.
Take your kids.