Last week, I lamented Peter Rabbit’s utterly bizarre marketing campaign, that seemed to suggest this adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s books would be frenetic and uncomfortably sexual. This week, I’m stunned to report: Don’t trust the trailers. Peter Rabbit is great.
Purists might be pleased to know that Peter’s stories about the cranky Mr. McGregor are the jumping off point. Sam Neill pops by to glower and play a deliciously wrathful old coot, who threatens to cook Peter in a pie (just as he did his dad!), and then promptly keels over. With McGregor gone, Peter (James Corden) and his friends and family celebrate by pillaging the garden and throwing a house party. But the story really kicks off when McGregor’s uptight nephew Tom (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives.
This young McGregor plans to polish up the place and sell it. He has no interest in this lovely rural setting, nor any patience for the mess Peter and his crew bring into his life and inherited garden. But things change when Tom meets Bea (Rose Byrne), a chipper painter who lives across the way and serves as a sort of adoptive mother to Peter and his sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley). So, while the external conflict is battling over the garden’s contents, the underlying tension is really about a child not ready to see a potential step-dad steal away his mother’s affections. This I’d credit to director Will Gluck, who has made such explosively charming rom-coms as Easy A and Friends With Benefits. Basically, Peter Rabbit’s story is essentially a Trojan Horse for a romantic comedy where Byrne and Gleeson get to be hilarious, adorable, and great at Bananagrams.
When we posted trailers for Peter Rabbit, several commenters remarked that Gleeson MUST be doing this movie for the paycheck, assuming this would be a thankless part. Actually, it’s a brilliant role that capitalizes on the villainous comedy chops he teased in The Last Jedi. Gleeson gives his all to the wild tale of a man battling a cute blue-jacketed bunny for the affections of a vibrant and loving woman. He’s pitched across rooms by an electric fence, pummeled then pantsed by this rascally rabbit. And in one scene, he performs the live-action version of The Simpsons’s scene, where Sideshow Bob steps endlessly on the ends of rakes, only to be thwacked in the face again and again. It sounds too much, right? It sounds dumb? But with scowls, yowls, and grumbles, Gleeson sells every ludicrous moment, making it all utterly delightful. He proves himself a master of slapstick! And then Gleeson does something extraordinary, he makes us fall for him.
This McGregor is not the merciless old man who killed rabbits and then taunted their surviving children about it. (All that, by the way, is told through an animated sequence in the traditional Potter aesthetic.) Tom has ambition and a deep desire to have things his way, but life—and a plucky bunny—have other plans. As absurd as the specifics are, Tom’s journey is relatable. When he tries to affect a meditative yoga pose while the bunnies pelt him with tomatoes and berries, it felt like a solid metaphor for anyone trying to maintain calm while looking over Twitter or seeing Trump’s latest headlines. Byrne gets less to do, but is perfectly funny and warm whether she’s flirting with Tom or rocking out to “Fight Song” as she paints, oblivious to the literally explosive battle going on just outside her window. Regardless, you root for this odd couple to work it out!
For me, the humans steal the show of Peter Rabbit. But that’s not to say the animal stuff isn’t a ton of fun. The voice cast brings a contagious energy to every moment, and the animation is a delicate cross between photo-real and cartoony, that seems a suitable evolution of Potter’s drawings. Plus, Peter’s story is one of adventure and coming-of-age, as he confronts his mistakes, and makes a daring journey into London for love!
Peter’s story is full of antics, action, and jokes that will make kids giggle, including a prolonged sequence where he debates sticking a carrot into Old McGregor’s plumber-style crack. And yes, those moments will be tedious for the grown-ups in the audience. Far more rewarding are the small moments that play with rom-com expectations, setting up a cliched joke, then delivering a cheeky subversion. Each one scored guffaws from grateful grown-ups in the audience.
I know some of you are reading this and waiting for the “but”, or the reveal that I’m kidding. Nope. Peter Rabbit is genuinely and deeply entertaining and endearing. Gluck made a movie that kids will want to watch over and over for its action, animals, and silliness, and adults will be happy to revisit because of its rom-com charms and surprisingly sophisticated wit.