As I walked through the smoking ruins of London last spring (aka, went to do my big shop during the first coronavirus lockdown) I was sometimes struck by what might have been. Every bus seemed to be plastered with an increasingly battered Onward poster, urging me to see an animated Pixar movie despite that now being illegal. Every billboard, a James Bond tie-in shouting at a release date that never happened.
But for me, the most tragic was always the advertising campaign for Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway – and not just because there was a poster on my way to Sainsbury’s Wandsworth. Originally set for a February 2020 release date in the US (which could have actually happened!) the film was slightly shifted to late March/April to tie into the Easter celebrations, which in turn unfortunately made it one of the earliest movie cancellations of the pandemic.
Something about the forlorn poster promising an egg-citing Easter release, and the silent hordes of official Peter Rabbit 2 plushies and chocolate eggs haunting the shelves of supermarkets (one of which found its way to my baby nephew, so not a complete waste) struck a chord with me – which is why it seemed entirely appropriate that this part CGI, part live-action Beatrix Potter adaptation became my first “proper” film experience in 2021 as cinemas finally reopened.
All of which is a slightly too lengthy, reader-unfriendly way to say that I’ve seen the new Peter Rabbit movie that’s just come out. Now, on to the story.
Fresh from the events of the original movie – which, lest we forget, saw a rabbit voiced by James Corden humiliate and physically assault Star Wars’ Domhnall Gleeson in a dispute over land/vegetable ownership – the new film begins with the pair on better terms. Gleeson’s Thomas McGregor is marrying Peter and his rabbit family’s mother figure Bea (Rose Byrne), and has welcomed all the animals into his garden.
Still, this happy (and hoppy) idyll can’t last long. When Bea’s hand-painted books about the adventures of Peter et al attract the attention of a big-city publisher (David Oyelowo), she begins to be seduced by the possibility of major literary success. Meanwhile, Peter is offended by the publisher’s attempts to cast him as the villain of the story, leading him to strike out and live up to this reputation by teaming up with a grizzled old thief called Barnabas (Lennie James, also a rabbit).
Together they pull a series of heists involving kid-friendly slapstick violence and parent-friendly gags, leading Peter down a dark path (well, more lightly shaded; this is a children’s movie) that puts his rabbit family in danger. Said family are voiced by Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Aimee Horne (taking over from Daisy Ridley in the first film), with other new and familiar animal characters voiced by Sam Neill, Sia, Ewen Leslie, Hayley Atwell, Rupert Degas and Damon Herriman.
Is it the biggest and best piece of cinéma you could enjoy now that movies are back on the menu? Well, no – it's a fairly middle-of-the-road children's movie. But if you or your kids enjoyed the first movie then you’re likely to get along well with this one. While Corden’s performance is still divisive (a fact the film plays around with in a running gag about Peter’s annoying voice) and it doesn’t have the charm of the Paddington series this film is still an entertaining ride, with laugh-out-loud moments (I laughed about four or five times, which isn’t bad!) and a self-critical eye.
Full of jokes about the Hollywoodification of the Beatrix Potter characters (in one pitch to the publisher, Peter wears high-tops and a T-Shirt saying “hype beast”) and Shrek-like gags likely to go over the heads of younger viewers while entertaining the parents, Peter Rabbit 2 is happy to make fun of its own weaknesses to great effect.
Overall, this is a film probably best suited to kids aged 5 and up (though younger kids may also enjoy it if they’re not too worried by cartoon violence and “mild peril” – it’s a matter of personal judgement there), and certainly the best new family offering available at the newly-opened cinemas around the UK. Kids will enjoy it, and parents are likely to get something out of it themselves.
Assuming, of course, that they haven’t all got too used to enjoying children’s films like Trolls World Tour or Tom & Jerry on the small screen. Personally, I think this movie has waited long enough to be worth seeing in theatres – even without any tie-in merch.