PETER RABBIT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Will Gluck

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill, Marianne-Jean Baptiste, voices of James Corden, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Ewen Leslie, Sia, Colin Moody, Fayssal Bazzi.

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Beatrix Potter’s iconic and beloved creation comes to the big screen in this fast-paced family friendly film that deftly mixes live action with CGI animation.

The eponymous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, from One Man, Two Guvnors, etc) is a rascally, recently orphaned character who loves invading the vegetable garden of farmer McGregor (Sam Neill), who killed and ate his father in a rabbit meat pie. When old man McGregor collapses and dies, Peter and his family and forest friends quickly move into the empty house and make themselves at home. Meanwhile in London, McGregor’s great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), a highly strung and overly officious assistant manager at the toy department at swanky Harrods store in London loses his job following a meltdown when he loses a much-anticipated promotion.

But then he learns that he has inherited the McGregor farm. He despises the countryside, but intends to move in anyway with plans to, fix the place up and then sell so that he can make a fortune and open a toy store just down the road from Harrods. When he arrives at the farm he is horrified to find it inhabited by animals who have trashed the place. His plans are temporarily put on hold while he spends time fixing the place up. He runs the animals off the property and then erects gates and electric fences to ensure they stay out.

He also meets his next-door neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne), a pretty and easy-going artist who is sympathetic towards the cute rabbits and can be viewed as a surrogate for Potter herself. She even draws pictures of rabbits, and these recreate the illustrations that accompany Potter’s stories perfectly. Peter grows jealous of the obvious attraction that develops between Thomas and Bea and sets out to sabotage the blossoming romance by any means possible. But his actions have unintended consequences.

There have been plenty of animated versions of Beatrix Potter’s tales about Peter Rabbit before, although the most recent was tv series in 1992-95. This offers a more irreverent take on Potter’s classic tales and may offend some purists. But director Will Gluck (Easy A, the saccharine musical Annie, etc) maintains a fast pace throughout. There is plenty of cartoonish physical comedy and slapstick humour here that will remind audiences of the Looney Tunes cartoons and even the antics of the Three Stooges or Home Alone. There’s a couple of running jokes involving a rooster bemused by the sun coming up every day, a deer in the headlights, and a flock of birds.

Glick cowrote the script with Rob Leiber (Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, etc), and the pair have padded out the simplistic short stories with a lot of busyness and subplots, not all of which are successful. They also seem to have made a conscious decision to distance themselves from the source material, giving it a bit of a post-modern tone and boisterous attitude.

As with the recent Paddington 2, there are some great special effects and CGI, courtesy of Animal Logic studios, that seamlessly incorporate the digitally created animals into the live action. The quality of the animation is faultless. The film was shot in New South Wales, but the production design and sets recreate rural England beautifully. Cinematographer Peter Menzies jr (Shooter, All Eyez On Me, etc) has shot the film in bright breezy colours.

Gleeson rarely appears in comedies, but here he is game, and embraces the slapstick tone with abandon. He throws himself into the physical stuff and is the brunt of Peter’s increasingly aggressive antics, suffering the bulk of comic pratfalls. Byrne is charming and brings a bright and breezy quality to her performance as Bea, although her role isn’t really all that demanding or gives her much to do. Gluck has assembled a strong vocal cast, many from Australia, to bring the animals to life. Corden brings plenty of cheeky charm and a mischievous touch to his reading of Peter, but he also oozes a cynicism that is not part of Peter’s persona. Margot Robbie (recently seen in I, Tonya, etc) provides the voice of Peter’s sister Flopsy as well as providing the knowing voice over narration, while Elizabeth Debecki voices Mopsy and Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley provides the voice for Cotton Tail. Singer Sia provides the voice of Mrs Tiggly-Winkle, while Ewen Leslie (recently seen in The Butterfly Tree, etc) provides the voice for the priggish and pompous pig named Pigling Bland.

While Peter Rabbit is great family entertainment and ideal for the school holiday period it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Paddington 2, a film which it clearly tries to emulate. However, it ultimately lacks the same quality of sight gags and visual humour as Paddington 2 and doesn’t quite have the same broad appeal. Younger audiences will enjoy the visual humour and the cute animals though.

★★★

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