Peter Rabbit

(2018) ** 1/2 Pg
93 min. Sony. Director: Will Gluck. Cast: James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie.

/content/films/5098/1.jpgIt’s tempting to attack Sony’s big-budget live-action/animation franchise launch Peter Rabbit for adulterating its delicate source material. Beatrix Potter’s beloved 1902-1912 series of children’s books about a family of rabbits had a touch of edge about them, but they’re remembered for a classical gentility, whereas Will Gluck’s feature adaptation takes the tack of in-your-face brashness, goosed by high-energy pop music and literally winking self-referential humor.

Die-hard lovers of Potter’s books get to see Peter (James Corden); his sisters Flopsy (current Oscar nominee Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki of The Cloverfield Paradox), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley of Star Wars); threatening human Mr. McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill); Peter’s cousin Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas); and even hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia). Rose Byrne plays neighbor “Bea,” a stand-in for Potter whose paintings include Potter-style portraiture of the animals, and a few little plot touches emerge from Potter’s slim volumes.

But almost right out of the gate, Gluck’s Peter Rabbit (co-written by Rob Lieber) insists upon its modernism, a presumed necessity of the marketplace. This Peter is more than a garden-variety rascal; he’s the Ferris Bueller of rabbits. As such, many will love him, and many will find his zany wisecracks, blatant selfishness, and borderline amorality repulsive. An early plot shift doubles as metaphor: old model Mr. McGregor gets carted away and replaced by a younger model: his great-nephew Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). This uptight Londoner moves into his great-uncle’s country house, begins tending his garden, and takes note of his pretty, single-lady neighbor.

Bea spends much of her time palling around with Peter’s family and defending them from angry McGregors after the anthropomorphic critters’ latest vegetable heist from the aforementioned garden. Young McGregor hates the animals with an ever-escalating homicidal rage but hides his vitriol as he woos Bea. What develops rests somewhere between Byrne’s Neighbors movies and the Home Alone movies: a community competition with nasty slapstick battles: since he gets to be both Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, Gleeson takes the full brunt of hurled projectiles and electrified doorknobs.

Traditionalists will visualize Potter rolling in her grave, but let’s face facts: Peter Rabbit will get kids giggling, and the Love, Actually rom-com subplot will charm most of their parents. Gleeson and Byrne turn in winning performances, and the whole enterprise proves, though annoyingly smug, reasonably witty. Gluck, who’s known for live-action fare like Easy A and the recent Annie redo, shows a knack for sight gags (a cups and balls bit involving flower pots is a good example) and has a game comedic collaborator in Gleeson, who’s obviously having a ball. The Paddington movies provide a more likeable balance of sweetness and contemporary humor, but don’t expect the wee ones to notice as they squeal with delight at Peter Rabbit.

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