Bringing a national treasure to the big screen can be an obstacle course. But when somebody else has already pulled it off, the stakes are higher and the road even rockier. How do you follow it? More importantly, how do you better it? The success here is Paddington, so the odds were already stacked against Peter Rabbit before his twitching nose poked out of his burrow.
Paddington set the standard, preserving and respecting what everybody loved about the stories and combining good film making with top notch CGI and voices to match. Beatrix Potter’s rabbit’s eye view tales of the countryside came with their own delicate illustrations which have passed down into popular culture. And director Will Gluck has followed the Paddington model by mixing CGI versions of Peter and his crew with live actors, as well as translating those drawings into animation. The visual link with the film’s heritage is forged. But the story only partly reflects it.
In keeping with tradition, Peter (voiced by James Corden) and the other bunnies are constantly trying to pilfer veg from Mr McGregor’s (Sam Neill, with an accent that wavers from Belfast to Glasgow) immaculate garden. But the old man dies suddenly, so the house and all-important garden are left to his great nephew, the uptight Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson). He plans to tidy up the place and put it on the market, but the animals won’t let it go. And there’s the added attraction of the comely next door neighbour, Bea (Rose Byrne), a would-be artist whose paintings are terrible, but also does delightful watercolours of the animals. Ring any bells?
Gluck places the story firmly in the present day, with contemporary music, language and a Peter who isn’t so much cheeky as a roguish geezer. Sandwiching such a perennial favourite with so many present day tropes doesn’t sound like a good fit, yet it works more often than you’d expect. And the way some of the scenes featuring the animals melt into the traditional watercolours and back are again is elegantly done. The overall tone is knowing, rather than reverential, gently taking the proverbial out of itself and there’s also a wedge of cheese in the shape of the romance between Thomas and Bea, with Peter and the gang helping the course of true love to run smoothly.
With families firmly in its sights, the film should keep all ages happy. Youngsters will love the animals and the physical comedy, while adults are more likely to be amused by the verbal humour. But there’s one thing they’ll miss, something that Paddington had in spades. It just doesn’t have the warmth, the charm: it’s enjoyable enough, the animation is good but it just doesn’t give you a great big furry hug. Most of the well-known names behind the voices aren’t especially recognisable, with the exception of Corden, but one of the animals spectacularly steals the show in just a handful of scenes. A cockerel, rejoicing in the name of J W Rooster II, greets the rising sun with daily astonishment, in a voice reminiscent of Viv from The Young Ones. It belongs to the film’s visual effects supervisor, Will Reichelt, and it’s a little stroke of pure genius. So much so that, after every appearance, you long for him to appear again. And again.
Peter Rabbit is no Paddington. Credit to Gluck and co for trying to do something different but, for all the laughs, the energy, the knowing tone – and, yes, the ramped up rooster – it lacks one crucial ingredient. It’s just not loveable.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Comedy, Animation, Adventure | PG | UK, 16 March (2018) | Sony Pictures | Dir. Will Gluck| James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Sam Neill, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Marianne Jean-Baptiste.