'Peter Rabbit': Film Review

Beatrix Potter goes CGI with garden-variety results.

James Corden gives voice to the mischievous but beloved bunny in this live-action/computer-animated adventure.

Considerably more manic and less charming than Paddington Bear but decidedly not as annoying as Alvin and his fellow chipmunks, Beatrix Potter’s beloved anthropomorphic bunny makes his live-action/CGI big-screen debut in the eponymous Peter Rabbit with mixed results.

While Potter devotees will no doubt be scandalized by the edgier bad-boy ‘tude now possessed by Mr. McGregor’s mischievous cotton-tailed nemesis, the greater offense committed is the awfully flimsy plotting that fails to take full advantage of terrific production values and the work of an engaging cast led by the affably energetic James Corden.

Getting a sizable jump on the Easter bunny (the release was moved up Stateside from its original March 23 berth, presumably so as not to butt heads with the animated Sherlock Gnomes), the family-friendly film should nevertheless generate some respectable lettuce for Sony.

Director Will Gluck, who penned the screenplay along with Rob Lieber, quickly establishes the production’s overtly slapstick tone right from the start, as a quartet of singing birds encircling the iconic Columbia Pictures “Torch Lady” end up as the dazed victims of a hit-and-run by an out-of-control Peter Rabbit (Corden).

Refusing to take heed of the fate met by his late father, Peter continues his regular raids on the vegetable garden meticulously tended to by gruff Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), with some trusty back-up from his sisters, triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley), as well as loyal cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody).

When the old man abruptly drops dead of a heart attack during one of Peter’s pillages, the rambunctious rabbit and his fellow woodland creatures do some serious celebrating. But the festivities prove short-lived with the arrival of McGregor’s heir, nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson).

An uptight, fastidious former manager at London’s famed Harrod’s department store, Thomas intends to sell the property in order to finance the opening of his own toy shop, but he hadn’t counted on distractions from both Peter and his kind human caretaker, artist Bea (Rose Byrne).

The anticipated, prolonged standoff ensues, paving the way for many repeated gags but little in the way of any significant plot progression. Although Gluck, who previously helmed the 2014 feature adaptation of Annie, keeps things hopping along reasonably briskly, the end result is disappointingly hollow, considering the talent pool he had at his disposal.

Even as Corden proves to be a smart voice-casting choice, ably conveying the essential goodness behind the less-than-exemplary behavior, the written character fails to strike the desirable balance between impish and bad-ass. Those tonal issues also prove challenging for the human characters, who are forced to tread an ill-defined line between fallible and cartoonish.

But if it may not sound quite right, the production certainly looks splendid, with the natural live-action backdrops (filmed in England’s Lake District as well as in Sydney, Australia) doing idyllic justice to Potter’s world, while the CGI hits impressively photorealistic fresh heights — right down to the rabbit fur that oscillates convincingly in those gentle country breezes.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, 2.0 Entertainment, Animal Logic Entertainment, Olive Bridge Entertainment
Distributor: Sony
Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie, Colin Moody.
Director: Will Gluck
Screenwriters: Rob Lieber, Will Gluck
Producers: Will Gluck, Zareh Nalbandian
Executive producers: Doug Belgrad, Jodi Hildebrand, Catherine Bishop, Susan Bolsover, Emma Topping, Rob Lieber, Jason Lust, Jonathan Hludzinski.
Director of photography: Peter Menzies
Production designer: Roger Ford
Costume designer: Lizzie Gardiner
Editors: Christian Gazal, Jonathan Tappin
Music: Dominic Lewis

Rated PG, 93 minutes