By Liam Lacey
This take on the story of an irrepressible bunny (voiced by James Corden) and his feud with the farmer, Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), should appeal to children who relish seeing small creatures give big creatures their comeuppance. And, for the big people, there's some clever, banter about the specific character flaws of pigs, deer, hedgehogs and rabbits who can’t help helping themselves.
American writer-directors Will Gluck (Annie, Easy A) and Rob Lieber have managed to keep things English, if not exactly traditional. Set against the Lake Country - with excellent CGI for the animal characters - it maintains the original idyllic setting. From the Potter books, we still have the familiar triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, who also serves as narrator), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley) and cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody).
With Peter as the leader, their purpose in life is to pilfer vegetables from the garden of the irascible Mr. McGregor. To be precise, though, this is actually England by way of Australia, where much of the film was shot, as is reflected by the casting: Mr. McGregor is played by Neill, hidden behind white whiskers and glasses. Other Aussies include Robbie, Aussie pop star Sia (as a hedgehog), and Rose Byrne as a human character
Somewhat on the dark side for a children's film, the human-rabbit conflict turns out to be literally a fight to the death: As in the books, Mr. McGregor won't be happy until he sees Peter in a pie. Unexpectedly, it’s the old man who succumbs first, done in by a lifetime losing struggle of bad rabbits and worse habits. No sooner is he carted away by "the ice-cream truck with the flashing lights" (as Peter puts it), than the triumphant bunny has opened Mr. McGregor's house to a celebratory wildlife party.
The festivities are interrupted by a visit from McGregor’s twitchy nephew Thomas (the versatile Domhnall Gleeson, who also proves a gifted physical comedian.). Thomas is a prissy city-slicker who has just been fired from his job as a toy department floor manager at Harrods. He is determined to sell the farm and use the proceeds to set up his own toy shop, and bring the venerable store to its knees.
But first, he has to clean out the farm house’s vermin. And, to complicate matters, he must do so secretly because of his growing attraction to his neighbour in an adjacent cottage, Bea (Rose Byrne). Bea's a nature-loving painter of grotesque abstracts. In her spare time, she knocks off dainty Potter-esque water-coloured paintings of her bunny friends.
Thomas and the bunnies vie both for her affection and the produce of the garden patch. The interspecies showdown escalates rapidly (booby-traps, explosives, electric fences rabbit punches). Though the slapstick scenes go on somewhat longer than necessary, the story ultimately resolves into a gentle, accepting conclusion in keeping with its literary source material.
Peter Rabbit originalists have little to worry about. No movie adaptation is likely to cast a shadow on Potter's century-long literary legacy. Since its initial 1901 privately-printed run of 250 copies, The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 45-million copies worldwide. There’s a new Potter book sold, according to a recent estimate, every 15 seconds. That's an achievement in multiplication even a rabbit might admire
Peter Rabbit. Written and directed by Will Gluck and Rob Lieber, based on the works of Beatrix Potter. Starring: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill and Margot Robbie. Opens wide Friday, February 9.