It’s hard to make sense of “Peter Rabbit.” Based on Beatrix Potter‘s beloved, century-old British literary mainstay, this CG/live-action hybrid adaptation enlists Will Gluck, the American director/co-writer behind an inconsistent batch of studio comedies, including “Easy A,” “Friends With Benefits,” “Fired Up” and 2014’s “Annie” remake, to bring this early 20th century garden rabbit to the new millennium. As you might imagine, the results are inspired, bizarre, and wildly uneven.
But is it bad? Certainly not as bad as it could’ve been. “Peter Rabbit” is more enjoyable and charming than its bombastically irreverent advertising suggests, and a weirdly watchable slice of family entertainment. Though it doesn’t reach the same subversive, innovative heights of “Paddington 2” or even “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” it captures a playful, rambunctious, lively child-like spirit that’s not inauthentic. It’s proud to be silly, and filled with many odd touches, random tangents, kooky comedic asides and lots of punchy slapstick humor. However, while it also has plenty of heart, it not’s quite endearingly middling.
Not adapting any individual Potter book in particular, “Peter Rabbit” follows the titular character (voiced with resonating affection by James Corden) in the midst of a turf war of sorts with Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, delightfully evil), who is protecting his bountiful vegetable garden. Acting in revenge for past injustices, but also for both the benefit of his remaining family of bunnies, including his three younger sisters, Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-Tail (voiced by Daisy Ridley), and his cousin/sidekick Benjamin (Colin Moody), as well as for his own cocky self-interests, Peter steals all the juicy veggies he can muster into his hairy paws. Mr. McGregor routinely chases him down, threatening to throw Peter in a pot and cook him into a rabbit pie. But when their latest altercation takes an unexpected turn, Peter, his family and his forest friends take over McGregor’s home and turn it into party central.
It’s all fun and games for Peter and his rowdy woodland gang until they’re acquainted with Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), Mr. McGregor’s distant, sternly neat and orderly great-nephew, who gets the deed to McGregor’s countryside home. Thomas isn’t fond of animals roaming recklessly around his house, and Peter doesn’t take too kindly to him either. Thomas is looking to fix and sell the property as quickly as possible, but that’s before he meets Bea (Rose Bryne), his artsy, rabbit-loving neighbor, with whom he grows smitten. The affections grow mutual, but certainly not for Peter. Together, Thomas and the rabbits embark on a full-out war for the McGregor estate. And the battle becomes explosive.
“Peter Rabbit” is as obnoxious as the titular character, but kinda sweet too. The film is bolstered by a casual sense of anarchy more than it’s not, with a steady stream of snappy sight gags livening up the proceedings in fitfully bubbly ways. Strangely, “Peter Rabbit” plays like a PG-version of “Neighbors,” even down to its Byrne connection. As the territorial combat between Thomas and Peter grows more violently intense, “Peter Rabbit” becomes more knowingly chaotic and outright ludicrous in ways that it’s not afraid to point out (often several times) directly to the camera. But that self-awareness doesn’t necessarily salvage the picture.
Nonetheless, the performances are committed, with Corden bringing his usual oversized exuberance to good use inside this revamped rabbit, while Gleeson goes all out for the film’s zappy, physically-intensive comedy and Byrne provides a nice sense of warmth. In fact, the moments where Gleeson and Byrne build a loving relationship together are some of the movie’s best, as you can likely imagine from the director’s romantic comedy past. While the script by Gluck and Rob Lieber (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day“) is a little too eager to knowingly subvert familiar family movie cliches, the cast is happily willing to sell this material.
Trying work this distinctly British material through American sensibilities, while never playing it straight nor completely falling in line with your typically overcooked and modernized reinvention of beloved literary characters, it’s still difficult to parse who exactly “Peter Rabbit” is made for. The humor is perhaps a little too adult for kids to fully enjoy and the rest is too actively juvenile for adults to engage in. Still, “Peter Rabbit” isn’t without its odd delights, and while it won’t serve as the definitive version of Potter’s adoring, timeless creation, Gluck’s film may find a way to burrow into your heart. [C+]