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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Peter Rabbit

When I saw the early trailers for Peter Rabbit, I shuttered a little.  It came across as crude and crass, and it gave me bad flashbacks of the infamous live action take on The Cat in the Hat with Mike Myers.  Needless to say, I did not exactly walk into the screening with a spring in my step.  Having seen it, I can safely say that the movie itself ends up being a pleasant surprise, with enough charm and warmth to make it harmless for young children and watchable for adults.  It's no classic, but if the trailers turned you off, I can assure you that the actual film is nowhere near as annoying.  I can only hope whoever was in charge of the marketing wises up, and is made to learn the error of their ways.

This is not a faithful rendition of the classic children's literary character, like the recent Paddington 2, which, truth be told, is a better film than this, and you should make sure your children see that one first.  The movie employs a lot of modern humor, pop songs, and the unmistakable voice of James Corden as the titular rabbit, who is essentially playing himself in the guise of a CG bunny.  You almost expect Peter to break into a Carpool Karaoke sequence at any minute.  Fortunately, this is nowhere near as bad as you might expect.  The movie does have quite a few quiet and sweet moments, and generally has a big enough heart that shows through when required.  It even caused me to chuckle a few times with some of the one-liners.  It also has to be said that the movie is technically great to look at.  The animation on the rabbits and other various animals who make up a majority of the cast is not only top tier, but they blend in perfectly with the human actors and live action backdrops.  There's no "Uncanny Valley" moments, and when one of the human actors pick up or handle one of the CG animals, it's entirely convincing.

In the film, Peter is seen as a bit of a rebel, fighting a continuous battle with grumpy old Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill) over the contents of the old man's vegetable garden.  Peter delights in stealing the carrots, berries and other fresh produce from the garden with the help of his three younger sisters Flopsy (voice by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voice by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton Tail (voice by Daisy Ridley), along with his cousin Benjamin (voice by Colin Moody).  When old McGregor passes away, Peter and his animal friends decide to take over the house and land, throwing a huge party.  Their fun is interrupted by the arrival of Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a distant relative to the farmer who inherits the house and land, and promptly sets out to fix the house up so he can sell it and open his own upscale toy store in London.

Thomas is a perfectionist and a control freak.  We see him at his first job working at a department store, and how no detail escapes his eye.  Being born and bred in the city, he is not very thrilled about the country life or about the new home he has inherited.  But then, he meets the lovely young Bea (Rose Byrne), a painter who lives next door and is a good friend to Peter and his fellow rabbits.  She often protected them when the elder McGregor would chase them out of his garden.  Thomas and Bea start a shy relationship, and this is what gives the film a lot of its heart early on.  I quickly grew attached to the chemistry that grows in the scenes that Gleeson and Byrne share.  It also leads to some slapstick moments that's sure to delight children.  Peter feels threatened as Bea and Thomas begin to grow closer, and so he begins devising some over the top ways to get ride of Thomas, including electrifying the doorknob on his front door, and setting painful traps around his yard and garden.

Is Peter Rabbit a great movie?  Not really.  It relies a bit too heavily on pop song montages at times, and some of the physical humor seems to be carried over from the Home Alone movies.  But that's not really what appealed to me.  I like that director and co-writer Will Gluck (2014's Annie) finds plenty of moments for us to get behind and feel for these characters.  The moments of physical comedy almost seem to be a requirement that he fulfills, but the movie is much more interested in the more quiet scenes where the characters reflect on themselves.  There's also some clever word play and humor, with plenty of gags that will rightly fly over kids' heads, and make the parents laugh.  The movie ultimately finds a nice balance of kid-friendly physical comedy and some slightly smarter scenes, and that's what ultimately won me over.

This is also a beautiful film to look at.  From its stunning English countryside setting, to the wonderfully detailed animation and artwork on Peter and his animal friends, there's always something here to grab your attention visually.  The animals have a nice look that is somewhat realistic, but still has enough of a cartoon sensibility that it doesn't look strange that Peter and the other creatures are usually wearing clothes.  The fact that the animals are depicted wearing tiny jackets and outfits does bring up an interesting aspect that the film never addresses.  During the course of the story, Thomas becomes convinced that Peter and the other rabbits are plotting against him, and causing him all the pain and suffering that he is being subjected to.  Bea does not believe this notion, as she believes them to be simple rabbits.  And yet, she never seems to address the fact that rabbits do not usually wear clothes, even though they are always clothed in her presence.  You would think that might tip her off a little bit that maybe Peter and his friends are not your garden variety woodland creatures.


Peter Rabbit does have enough warmth, humor and visual stimulation for me to recommend, but like I said, make sure you see Paddington 2 first.  If you must make the choice, that's the British talking animal movie you should watch.  Still, this movie is just fine.  It never offends, and it's a heck of a lot better than the ad campaign makes it out to be.

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