It only takes a few minutes for Peter Rabbit to misunderstand its source material twice. This live action/animated hybrid opens on a group of birds singing a cutesy, vaguely preachy song, only to cut through the treacle with an elbow to the ribs in the form of a chase scene. Peter Rabbit, outlaw hero voiced by professional nuisance James Corden, bursts through the scene and bumps the birds aside, permanently ending their musical number. Take that, singing!
Even putting aside the fact that the oft-unsentimental work of Beatrix Potter tends not to traffic in syrupy birdsongs nor in smug rebukes of same, the sequence doesn’t make much sense on a genre level. When was the last time one of these live-action movies augmented by photo-realistic talking animals actually courted audiences with sugary, Disneyesque melodies? Have the birds sing “Shape Of You” or “We Are Family,” and let Peter Rabbit run roughshod over them to his stupid heart’s content. It wouldn’t be any more faithful to the original books, but at least it would be internally consistent.
Peter Rabbit doesn’t entirely fail as an adaptation because it doesn’t really endeavor to adapt any of Potter’s books. It’s positioned as kind of a sequel, taking place some years after the events depicted in The Tale Of Peter Rabbit and The Tale Of Benjamin Bunny. Peter’s parents are both dead, and his forays into the garden of Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) have become routine thrill-seeking and, to a lesser degree, a source of sustenance for Peter and his three younger sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley), as well as his portly cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody). Early in the film, Mr. McGregor dies, revealing that Peter Rabbit is the kind of kid-movie hero who reacts to death with absolutely no empathy and pokes a corpse in the eye to make sure it’s dead. It also establishes that Peter Rabbit is the kind of movie that finds this behavior charmingly irreverent.
It is, inescapably, that kind of movie. Peter Rabbit’s troublemaking from the book, at once animalistic and innocent, has been refashioned by director-cowriter Will Gluck into a motormouthed, self-regarding clone of Alvin, of caterwauling-rodent fame. He’s also been outfitted with a faux-tragic backstory that’s supposed to explain why he’s such a dick, giving him a story arc that turns on him showing some humility and owning his secret pain. This would work a lot better if the Corden version were funny at all; Robbie, Debicki, and Ridley all get more laughs.
The movie’s attempt at a redemptive arc for Peter does have a side effect that enlivens the rest of the movie. It makes the replacement Mr. McGregor, the old man’s great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), more than a foil for the little fuzzy jerk. The fastidious, exacting Thomas arrives at the McGregor farm aiming to fix it up and sell it, and falls in love with his rabbit-friendly neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), a sweet contemporary analog of the original author. Their relationship is built on a lie: that Thomas doesn’t want to get rid of Peter and other various woodland creatures sneaking into his garden. Peter, meanwhile, grows jealous of Bea’s affection to this new pasty fussbudget in her life.
Although Gluck has seemingly no idea how to make Peter’s insouciance charming, he does just that with Thomas’s uptightness, the occasion for a particularly inspired running gag about bird-watching. (Bea explains the practice to him, and he marvels when he realizes it’s a way of “organizing and documenting the chaos of the sky.”) Gleeson and Byrne are cute together, indicating that Gluck is a lot more at ease with live-action grown-ups. His other comedies (Easy A, Friends With Benefits) are slick and funny, if a little too overeager to assure you that he has, in fact, seen other movies. Here, that translates to would-be meta-jokes like characters talking about their designated “character flaws” (finally, a Peter Rabbit who reads screenwriting manuals!) and Peter making a pun, then self-consciously explaining the pun, then being told not to explain his jokes.
Strange suggestion: Before Gluck gets to the point where he’s writing a fourth joke about how jokes about not explaining jokes aren’t funny, why not just… tell normal jokes? He’s not bad when he bothers to do this in earnest. The movie is funnier when it plays up the rabbits’ daftness, their moments of miscomprehension of the human world (the ambulance that comes for Mr. McGregor being mistaken for a particularly loud ice-cream truck; the small town they accidentally visit being mistaken for London), as well as Thomas’ oddball habits. If only Gluck didn’t keep running away from the material’s gentility. For a movie that turns a mischievous but skittish rabbit into an adorable talking bunny one would leave a party to avoid interacting with, Peter Rabbit is surprisingly good. For a Brit-inflected talking-animal picture in the wake of the Paddington series, it’s not good enough.