When Beatrix Potter introduced her lovable rascal rabbit in 1902, the world was a very different place. Hers was a storytelling landscape where bunnies in bright jackets got up to all manner of jolly japes but were essentially kind-hearted and suitably respectful to both family and friends. It was inevitable, however, that any 21st-century makeover of her innocent tales would up the ante in terms of action and adventure.
Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck’s version of events gamely adheres to many of the quaint, rustic qualities of Potter’s original stories, while sprinkling them with modern-day motifs. Motor vehicles are rendered stationary by carrots stuck in exhaust pipes, fences and doorknobs are rigged to deliver electric shocks, there are sticks of dynamite aplenty, and Harrods department store would appear to be the beneficiary of one of the most blatant product placement deals in movie history.
Peter (voiced by James Corden) is the cocky leader of the pack, showing off to his trio of younger sisters (Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail) and cousin Benjamin with each daring raid on Farmer McGregor’s vegetable patch, but they can’t believe their luck when the bad-tempered old geezer keels over and dies as a result of one of the white-knuckle, man-versus-beast skirmishes.
However, their joy at having full, unfettered access to both the farm and McGregor’s well-appointed house is short-lived; their nemesis’s townie nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives in a cloud of cartoon rage and proves to be an even more formidable foe.
What’s worse, their human ally, fragrant, willowy would-be artist neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne) is bafflingly attracted to the evil interloper, liberally dispensing hugs that were once exclusively for the furry woodland creatures. Thus, the stage is set for a series of increasingly violent comic battles that test the animals’ cunning to the max.
Those turf wars provide the most enjoyment, Gluck’s set pieces owing little to the Potter of yore and taking their lead from the frantic showdowns between Tom and Jerry or the equally outlandish mayhem of Looney Tunes shorts. It all rattles along at a lively pace, doling out the requisite morals and homilies along the way, while never quite managing to engage the viewer as much as it could.
The supporting animal folk of pigs, badgers, foxes and deer are disappointingly underused (save for a terrific running gag involving a cockerel), and would seem to have been included just to showcase the wonders of the undeniably impressive animation technology. Paradoxically, Byrne’s by-the-book, sweetness-and-light turn as Bea would benefit from a little more animation, while Gleeson’s short-fused city slicker routine is irritatingly over the top.
And then there’s the voice artists, led by an underwhelming Corden. The visual action may borrow from vintage cartoons (explosions, madcap chases, villains standing on garden rakes and so on), but there’s little in the way of the characterisation the likes of Mel Blanc brought to their dialogue, nor the comedic vocal talents of, say, Steve Carell in the Despicable Me films.
Corden lazily speaks as his everyday self throughout (even the song he performs over the closing credits sounds like he’s asking for a coffee on the set of his chat show), while the low-key spin of one of his sisters reacting to proceedings with “innit”-style urban youth vernacular never quite convinces. Making every character a full-on country bumpkin might have been too predictable, even offensive, but Gluck leaves huge swathes of perfectly acceptable middle ground unexplored.
Nonetheless, it’s solid, box-ticking, serviceable fun, albeit relatively modest in its intentions and execution. There’s just enough acknowledgment of the source material to keep Potter purists from mounting their high horses in anger, while confidently establishing a strong enough premise for a long-running franchise on its own merits.
Peter Rabbit bounds into cinemas on Friday 16 March