Anyone who’s acquainted with Nickelodeon’s current animated version of Peter Rabbit, in which the eponymous bunny is reinvented as a loveable small-scale scoundrel along the lines of a furry Han Solo, will know what to expect from Will Gluck’s first movie adaptation. Following the success of Paddington - another vintage children’s character who made his screen debut in a very low-key, low-fi TV series, now modernised via a mix of live-action and CGI for twenty-first-century cinema - something of this kind was inevitable. That it’s one of Beatrix Potter’s characters that has been updated has outraged her fans, the early trailers set the forty-somethings’ pulses rising (the ones with fond memories of a more pastoral version), and yet the film has made $350m at the box office.
If you want to hate it, Gluck’s picture will give you plenty of ammunition with which to do so. If, on the other hand, you’ve lately seen Peter Rabbit on CBeebies and enjoyed the Paddington films, and you’re of an open enough mind to accept this new iteration of Potter’s Peter on its own terms - as an exact halfway point between these two approaches - then there is more than enough to enjoy here.
The plot is achingly simple. Our four-legged friends happily co-exist with Mr. McGregor, being well enough acquainted with his tactics to make his garden their primary food source, until one day he suffers a fatal heart attack and the house is bequeathed to the old man’s nephew Thomas - who, never having heard of his uncle, receives the bequest on the day he’s fired from his job at Harrods. The rather uptight, obsessive McGregor Junior moves in with a view to doing the place up for resale, only to find himself falling for the neighbour and recommencing his uncle’s war against the wildlife.
The small live-action cast is impeccable, Domhnall Gleeson almost unrecognisable from Star Wars and excellent as a mellowing McGregor, and Sam Neill (this was shot in sunny Australia) equally disguised and just as much fun in his short turn as the doomed uncle. Rose Byrne, on the other hand, is delightful as the nature-loving, unheralded artist Bea, not only giving the film a little heart thanks to her chemistry with Gleeson but also making it something of an origins story in disguise.
Much of the pre-release negativity, however, rested on the decision to cast uber-lad James Corden as Peter - with the trailers suggesting this iteration of the rabbit’s story would be just as uncouth as Corden’s reputation suggested - but Corden’s earlier career is distinguished by actual talent and when he brings it, as he undoubtedly does here, the results speak for themselves. For sure, there are moments of cartoon violence and twerking animals and an awful lot of contemporary pop music - and that’s what modern kids expect. But there is a great deal more to this film than that - including, whether intentionally or not, an inherent message about the dangers of Brexit - and the beautifully animated creatures bring the whole thing to life with a verve and charisma that’s hard to ignore.
This isn’t as soulful or heart-warming as Paddington, but as children’s movies with adult appeal go, it is considerably more entertaining and engaging than you might have been led to expect. No classic, but terrifically enjoyable nonetheless.
Extras: Flopsy Turvy short film / Dance-along / Making of featurette
PETER RABBIT / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: WILL GLUCK / SCREENPLAY: ROB LIEBER, WILL GLUCK / STARRING: JAMES CORDEN, ROSE BYRNE, DOMHNALL GLEESON, SAM NEILL, DAISY RIDLEY, ELIZABETH DEBICKI, MARGOT ROBBIE / RELEASE DATE: JULY 23RD