Starring: James Corden, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Domhnall Gleeson & Rose Byrne
Directed by: Will Gluck
Distributed by: Sony Pictures
Release Date: March 2018
Running Time: 95 mins
Synopsis: Peter Rabbit and his three sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail, enjoy spending their days in Mr McGregor’s vegetable garden. When one of Mr McGregor’s relative suddenly moves in, he’s less than thrilled to discover a family of rabbits in his new home. A battle of wills soon break out as the new owner hatches scheme after scheme to get rid of Peter, a resourceful rabbit who proves to be a worthy and wily opponent.
I had no intention of ever watching the Peter Rabbit movie; a glimpse of the trailer had filled me with immediate negative preconceptions and the casting of James Corden, a man who garners the same level of hatred that most dictators have to commit war-crimes to achieve, convinced me that this movie was probably not for me. The idea of a hip and smart-mouthed CGI rabbit bouncing around on-screen felt more aligned with the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies rather than the carefully illustrated novels from Beatrix Potter, so I wrote the film off as another soulless CGI cash cow. That is, until I accidentally switched the TV and caught 10 minutes of the film midway through its running time.
The scene that caught my eye was a humorous fight scene between Domhnall Gleeson’s Thomas McGregor and Corden’s computer-generated Peter Rabbit, with Rose Byrne’s Bea coming in periodically to check on them, resulting in the pair pretending to get along. It was daft, but one moment stood out; Peter Rabbit pulls down McGregor’s trousers mid-fight and suddenly McGregor kneels to the crowd and pretends to examine a painting with Peter, only to exclaim, “I naturally assumed she would walk in at that very moment”. It was a cute, subversive wink towards the older audience watching the film and enough to make me locate the film online to watch from the start.
Watching the film from the start, I was surprised at how little Corden’s take on Peter Rabbit irritated me; sure, he is a bit smart-alecky, but it isn’t as grating and overwhelming as one would expect. His three sisters (voiced by Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki) act as a nice counter-balance, as does his hapless cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody), but it is the humans that steal the show in this live-action/animation hybrid. Domhnall Gleeson is an absolute delight as the younger take on Mr McGregor; given a surprising amount of depth and likeability by the script as he attempts rid his home of the wildlife that has taken habitat. Rose Byrne is equally appealing as a fictional version of Beatrix Potter, adding a spark and independence to the traditional love interest role.
Beatrix Potter purists might dislike this modernisation of the classic books and animated series, but the creators seem to harbour a genuine love for the source material as it includes some traditional 2D animation and Potter-esque illustrations alongside the newer 3D animations. The film is clearly influenced by the recent Alvin and the Chipmunks and Paddington big-budget revivals, wisely opting to share the same blend of live-action and CGI rather than the fully animated worlds created by the likes of Pixar and DreamWorks. This helps ground the story in reality, despite the inclusion of talking wildlife and allows the beautiful British countryside to be a secondary character, much like in the original books. Gleeson is exceptionally good at working alongside imaginary creatures, a skill often neglected on resumes, and as such the action sequences within the film flow beautifully – I particularly enjoyed the dramatic jolts as characters touched electrically-charged door knobs to get thrown across the room.
I’m not a fan of James Corden by any means, and I’m aware it has become trendy to hate on him. I did enjoy his work on Gavin & Stacey despite his real-life ego, but his smarmy celeb-hobnobbing since moving to the USA has made him even more intolerable than before. It is often his social media pandering that irritates me most, whether it is dry-humping the air dressed as rat or singing tunelessly with celebrities whilst driving. Out of the famous voice actors in this movie, it is his voice is the most recognisable – I didn’t realise Daisy Ridley or Margot Robbie were in the film until the end credits. However, Corden’s capacity for annoyance is diffused by a lack of lines; he never really gets an opportunity to talk for too long and the script avoids giving him too many cringe-inducing lines. As much as I hate to admit it, his performance does capture the mischievous attitude of the boisterous rabbit, and I can’t think of another English actor who would have been better in the role.
The script itself is worth highlighting as it is very amusing and self-aware; Will Gluck co-wrote the script and also directed, giving the film an irreverent tone throughout but also preserving the emotional beats. I was surprised at the decision to kill off the original Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) at the start of the film; one of many moments where the film veered away from the expected. It was a bold moment and perhaps a way of pointing out early on that this film adaptation was not afraid to deviate from its source material. Despite the drastic changes to the original stories, Peter Rabbit maintains the spirit of the story and like Paddington before it, proves that a Hollywood adaptation of a British classic can work and still feel authentic. I’m curious what other classic children’s stories can be dusted off and revitalised for modern audiences – personally, I’d love to see a Sooty movie.
Despite my initial misgivings – most of which were involving James Corden – I found myself really enjoying Peter Rabbit, which just proves you can’t judge a film by its trailer. Will Gluck actively goes out of his way not to make Peter Rabbit into the lazy ‘by-the-numbers’ CGI cringe-fest I was expecting it to be; there is actually some depth and individuality to be found here. Amusing, rebellious and just a teeny bit emotional at times, Peter Rabbit is one of the better children movies to come out in recent years and is jolly good fun for adults too! Definitely worth giving a go, especially if you were put off by James Corden’s presence…