I’m not sure that when Beatrix Potter sat down to write The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she envisioned her button-cute creation as having a sadistic Bugs Bunny streak and a sweet tooth for Top 40 pop. But since that’s what passes for kids’ entertainment a century-and-change later, what did you expect? So I guess the bad news for Potter purists is, no, the frenetic new big-screen comedy Peter Rabbit is not a whimsically twee tea-and-crumpets story. However, the good news is it just happens to be clever, and funny, and moves as fast as a tyke on a sugar bender. If you squint hard enough, you’ll also find some of the author’s signature generosity and warmth, too.
The basic skeleton of the story is still intact. Peter, a kind but mischievous hare in a blue coat (voiced with infectiously bubbly wise-guy energy by James Corden), lives a relatively carefree existence in a pastoral British village along with his siblings Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley). The herd, which also includes their highly suggestible cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody), is looked after by the kindly painter Bea (Rose Byrne) while they repeatedly clash with Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill underneath a shaggy white beard) as they raid his vegetable garden. That is, until after one particularly strenuous chase with Peter, McGregor keels over and—spoiler alert—croaks. (Normally, I try to do my best to avoid spoilers, however, as a parent of young ones myself, this one seems important to point out since this is the one and only part of the movie that might prompt some uncomfortable questions if you’re accompanied by children. Here’s some advice: When this scene starts, it might be time to take junior out for a bathroom break or some Goobers.)
From there on, though, Peter Rabbit is relatively harmless fun. With McGregor out of the picture, Peter and his pals run roughshod over the place, gorging on his veggies like Romans on the way to the vomitorium and turning the place into their very own pleasure palace. But the party doesn’t last for long. Because soon, McGregor’s great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) moves in. Thomas is a fastidious clean freak who just got passed over for a promotion at Harrods department store in London and is relocating to the country to whip his great uncle’s cottage into shape so he can sell it and open his own toy store back in the city and put Harrods out of business. Peter, of course, has other plans.
From there, the film turns into a breakneck hybrid of a Tom and Jerry cartoon and a Home Alone installment, with the rabbits subverting and sabotaging their new city-slicker foil at every turn. And Gleeson, bless his heart, doesn’t phone any of this manic kids’ stuff in. He’s as committed to warring with a cutesy CGI confection like Peter as he was to locking horns with Kylo Ren. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment to single out for praise, but if you watch enough of these kiddie movies, you get used to the sight of big-time movie stars sleepwalking for a paycheck.
Still, this is Corden’s show from start to finish. The British comedian has always been a genial, gung-ho, and game presence whether on the big screen or the small one. And he injects this beloved character with just the right mixture of rascally anarchy, humor, and sentimentality. No, it’s not the Peter Rabbit you (and your parents and your grandparents) grew up with—I’m not sure many 21st-century kids would manage to stay awake through that movie, anyhow. Instead, it’s a smart, clean, fast-paced, and (mostly) delightful way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. And that’s not nothin’. B