Kernel Rating (out of 5): (2.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 93 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 7+. The classic children’s character from author Beatrix Potter gets an edgy update with this live-action film, which relies mostly on slapstick, somewhat violent humor to bridge the gap between humans and animals. A lot of pranking goes on, some of it quite dangerous (electrocutions, explosions, garden tools as weapons, homes are destroyed); a few characters die, including one who was turned into a meal and other who suffers a heart attack that we see occur; animal characters party hard and destroy a home, including one animal who goes streaking during the festivities; and a human character suffers a breakdown, destroys property, and plans the demise of Peter Rabbit and his friends. Otherwise, some name-calling and characters taunting/mocking each other; some characters are shown in their underwear, while others don’t wear pants at all; some bathroom humor; and some kissing.
The live-action ‘Peter Rabbit’ update is snarkier and edgier than Beatrix Potter’s original books, relying on pranking humor and violent antics to sell its new humor style. It has moments of poignancy, but feels mostly perfunctory.
By Roxana Hadadi
We’ve been lucky with children’s movies lately: the flawless “Paddington 2,” the exceptional “Coco,” the very fun “Ferdinand,” the kind “Wonder.” There are a lot of solid options out there for family viewing, and in that field, “Peter Rabbit” just doesn’t seem that unique.
For the most part, “Peter Rabbit” checks the boxes of what children’s movies often have these days: an edgy protagonist with a little bit of a mean streak, humor that relies on physical slapstick violence, a menagerie of modern pop and rock songs playing in the background, and a conclusion in which all the characters learn a lesson about self-worth. “Peter Rabbit” has all that, and lets the audience in on its awareness of those elements—characters walk in slow-motion to look cool, and then tell us they’re walking in slow motion to look cool; more than once, Peter Rabbit himself seems to wink directly at us.
But a lot of this feels rather perfunctory, and sometimes quite galling. Characters joke about killing others. A series of pranks escalates into life-threatening territory. We watch a man have a heart attack and die. The movie plays these elements for laughs, but a lot of this doesn’t feel quite like the watercolor Peter Rabbit we grew up on. Change isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the changes “Peter Rabbit” chooses to make often feel tonally off.
This update focuses on Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, of “The Emoji Movie”), he of the blue jacket and the mischievous personality, who lives with his triplet sisters and his cousin in a burrow under a large tree in the rural Windermere, right next door to the grumpy Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, of “Thor: Ragnarok”). For years, the rabbits have been stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s immaculate garden, and for years, the man has been fighting back in every way he can—and he is personally responsible for the family’s greatest tragedy. But things take a turn one day when Peter, while held in Mr. McGregor’s clutches, witnesses the man dying—and takes responsibility for the feat, throwing a huge party in his home and inviting all the other animals, including foxes, hedgehogs, pigs, and deer, to revel with him.
Little does Peter know, though, that Mr. McGregor left his gorgeous estate to a distant nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), who is looking for a change in his life once he is passed up for a promotion after a decade of devoting his life to Harrods department store. Looking for a change of pace, Thomas decides to visit Windermere, take stock of the place, and then sell it, using the proceeds to fund his own rival toy store.
Neither Thomas nor Peter have particularly sympathetic motives, but they can agree on one thing: that they both care for Beatrix Potter (Rose Byrne, of “X-Men: Apocalypse”), the painter who lives next door to them both and who looks after Peter and his relatives. She wants everyone in the village to share their land and she sees humans as infringing on the landscape that rightfully belongs to the animals, but when she befriends Thomas, an affection grows between them that threatens Peter. How can he get Thomas to leave the home so he can reclaim the land for himself and his family? And how can he get Thomas to leave so that Beatrix remembers he’s the most important thing in her life?
When Thomas and Peter meet, the film switches into pranking mode nearly immediately, and the antics get more and more dramatic: Thomas surrounds his garden in an electrical fence, which Peter and his siblings rewire; Thomas throws explosives into their burrow, for which Peter steals the detonator; Peter scatters animal traps and rakes around Thomas’s bed so when he wakes up he’ll be attacked. It’s all pretty painful but the film presents it all as hilarious, and it’s a little strange how much the film seems to find joy in pointing out people’s weaknesses, like Beatrix’s terrible paintings and Thomas’s earlier breakdown at Harrods.
Nevertheless, there are some warm-hearted moments here, like when Peter finally realizes how much his family means to him and apologizes for his behavior, and there are other funny elements that don’t totally rely on physical pain, like a recurring bit with a deer being entranced by the headlights of a car. But overall, “Peter Rabbit” veers between being too much and too forgettable. It never strikes the right balance.
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