Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit opens as one might expect for an animated/live-action film based on the misadventures of Beatrix Potter’s beloved fictional animal character: with a flock of birds gliding through the sky and singing a pretty little tune worthy of Julie Andrews. But only moments later, their song is abruptly cut short by the film’s blue-jacketed bunny hero (voiced by James Corden) defiantly announcing that this won’t be that kind of production.
Peter’s right. This film is an unapologetic vulgarization of its source material, turning Potter’s mischievous little scamp into a wise-cracking Poochie-style bad boy who can’t help himself from dropping a carrot down Mr. McGregor’s (Sam Neill) exposed butt crack. But taken on its own terms, the film actually manages to deliver 90 minutes of breezy, charming, and occasionally genuinely clever entertainment. With its mix of live-action and hyper-real animal animation, Peter Rabbit plays like a country cousin to Paul King’s Paddington films, similarly balancing slapstick, absurdism, and a touch of gross-out humor, though without King’s transcendently oddball sensibility.
Mercifully light on the soppy sentimentality that often weighs down most kiddie flicks, Peter Rabbit is a fast-paced, gag-a-minute affair that at times recalls the films of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker in its willingness to do anything for a laugh. Only Gluck is prone to desperately pausing for laughter—often cutting to a reaction shot to underline a gag—a technique that serves to highlight the fact that only about half of the jokes here really ever land.
Still, even if Peter Rabbit is only intermittently funny, it’s refreshing to see such a loose-limbed children’s film. The narrative, such as it is, is mostly a pretext for some slightly sadistic Home Alone-style antics in which Peter and other rabbits terrorize the fastidious toy shop manager (Domnhall Gleeson) who inherits his uncle McGregor’s country estate after the old man’s sudden death. The young man—also called Mr. McGregor—engages in all-out war with the rabbits while at the same time falling in love with his neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), who dotes on the furry little critters as if they were her children.
The film’s uncomplicated plotting allows plenty of space for goofy little throwaway gags—like a running joke about the young McGregor’s feeble attempts at birdwatching—that other films might have cut to make way for various subplots or emotional character moments. Gleeson and Byrne bring a daffy charisma to their characters, leaning hard into the film’s pervading silliness without turning Mr. McGregor and Bea into mere cartoons.
Like Gleeson and Byrne, Gluck seems to recognize his film’s inherent frivolousness, frequently calling attention to some of the screenplay’s plot mechanics and hacky tropes—at one point even hanging a lampshade on Peter’s famous blue jacket, in acknowledgement of the object’s trite value as an emotional symbold. That spirit of giddy flippancy keeps the film pleasantly engaging, but it also practically ensures that, unlike the books on which it’s based, Peter Rabbit is rather unlikely to be recalled with misty-eyed adoration by the time the year’s out, much less over a century after its creation.