Three years ago, I was astonished to report that—despite a truly off-putting marketing campaign—Will Gluck’s plucky take on Peter Rabbit was downright delightful. The rascally rabbits from Beatrix Potter’s children’s books were re-imagined with verve and paired with a quirky rom-com more tempting than a farmer’s garden. Gluck had successfully brought the wit and whimsy he’d made his signature with Easy A and Friends With Benefits and integrated it into a hijinks-heavy adventure that kids would cheer. Can he recapture this lightning in a bottle with Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway? No. But he sure does try.
This jaunty sequel begins at the wedding of beatific painter Bea (Rose Byrne) and frantic farmer Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). The tensions between Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and McGregor have softened, as the latter is essentially the former’s adoptive stepdad. However, new challenges present themselves as Peter feels he’s misunderstood, not only doubted at every turn by Thomas but also marketed as a “Bad Seed” by an opportunistic book publisher (David Oyelowo). Bea and the bunny family are so caught up in the fame the book brings that they don’t even notice when Peter runs away.
Determined to act out, the titular rabbit soon teams up with a gang of strays made up of a monologuing mouse, a sneering pair of alley cats, and a harried hare named Barnabas (Lennie James), who says he knew Peter’s dad back in the day. To them, Peter’s mischief-making is a skill perfect for their schemes. To Peter, they give the validation he desperately craves. But things get complicated when Peter pressures his cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), and sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debecki, and
Daisy Ridley Aimee Horne) into the grandest Farmer’s Market heist ever conceived. Meanwhile, the newlyweds quibble over what the focus of their life together should be: having human babies? Or compromising Bea’s artistic vision to become filthy stinkin’ rich?
Within all this, Gluck and co-writer Patrick Burleigh manage to work in callbacks to bits that were quite fun the first time ‘round. Cottontail is a hyper-active daredevil, this time fueled by a jelly-bean-induced sugar high. The anxiety-ridden rooster is back, screaming with new fears and conspiracies. And Gleeson’s gawky hero is once more tossed about like a chew toy. To his credit, he is totally game, turning a frolic into a laugh-out-loud prat-fall that spins from practical stunt to CGI-enhanced insanity. Kids might well relish more of the same, especially when it comes to Corden giddily leaning into a voice performance that’s not just obnoxious, but proudly so. Really. It’s repeatedly noted his “polarizing” voice is “annoying,” then played as a joke on the level of “I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. I’m NOT TOUCHING YOU.”
Unfortunately, the balance between adult sensibility and childlike wackiness is lost here, as McGregor and Peter are pushed along different paths for much of the film. The animal hijinks are the focus, which makes sense for a kids’ movie. Still, it means the rom-com chemistry that made the first film such a surprising thrill is short-changed. There are some familiar—and welcomed sparks—in a kooky couple’s fight, but little else is given to Rose Byrne other than to cluck and drop jaw at news, for better or for worse. Gleeson fares better, digging into the daffiness whether he’s scolding a rabbit like a bratty toddler or getting caught up in the dreamy eyes of David Oyelowo. (Farmer McGregor is officially bi now. Happy Pride!)
Late in the second act, Gluck aims for meta cleverness by having a babbling board of marketing execs pitch outrageous ideas for Bea’s childrens’ books. It’s a none-too-subtle satirizing of the pressures put on creators to juice up a sequel. Bea is repulsed when these money-chasing suits suggest an action-packed finale full of boat chases, motorcycles, and skydiving. Then of course, Peter and his crew will do all this and then some. But it’s cheeky—because it’s the kind of things studio hacks might request—and Gluck gave to them—but made fun of it first! Maybe it’s a tongue-in-cheek gag. Maybe it’s a cry for help. But either way, it’s not as funny on the screen as it may have played on the page.
In short, this sequel is a wonky ride, not as scenic, smooth or satisfying as its predecessor. Still, it’s fun. Kids will cackle at the misbehaving rabbits, who are cute and silly and loud. They may relate to Peter’s frustration at being deemed “bad” even when he’s trying his best. Adults aren’t as likely to cheer. But I will say Gluck lands some superb jokes that hit nostalgia and absurdity with a marksman’s aim. To avoid spoilers, I’ll tease only that this bunny adventure might well contain the best Green Day needle-drop in cinema history.
In the end, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway is a jolly adventure full of hijinks and jokes. It doesn’t live up to the first film. But what sequel does?
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway opens in theaters on June 11.
Header Image Source: Sony