Peter Rabbit is a modern spin on the classic children’s story about a mischievous bunny who can’t help but cause a world of trouble for all those around him, especially the owners of a small garden in the British countryside. But when Peter comes between the garden’s newest owner’s and some much needed peace and quite, Peter quickly discovers that he may have finally bitten off more than he can chew.
Peter Rabbit, from director Will Gluck–the same man who brought you movies like Easy A, Friends with Benefits, and the recent remake of Annie–is not a good movie.
Now, there is certainly a lot to enjoy about the movie. In fact, most of the individual parts of the movie are enjoyable in and of themselves. The performances of the movie’s live-action leads (Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne as neighbors Thomas and Bea) are charming and lovely. The vocal performances of its animated cast, which includes notable names such as James Corden, Daisy Ridley, and Margot Robbie, are sharp, witty, and always with the right amount of warmth you’d expect from a group of adorable animated bunnies. The story is simple, yet charming and effective. The animation is detailed, smooth, and lively. And I can’t recall a single joke or quip or gag that didn’t stick the landing.
But while there’s plenty to enjoy about the movie, the movie fails to make all these individual pieces work together. For every good thing about the movie, there’s a nagging issue that comes along with it.
For example: the animated critters in Peter Rabbit are all lovingly crafted and animated. These models are, at times, even better than those seen in some Hollywood productions with even larger budgets. But the actual compositing–the process and craft of blending the various CGI constructs of a film with its real-world footage–is just awful. At no time do any of the CGI animals believably exist in the world they’re supposed to occupy. They look and move impressively realistic, enough. But they also often look like they’re just thrown over the footage with little to no attempt to make it look like they’re interacting with the environment or flesh-and-blood actors. Perhaps this was a matter of not enough time and money to make it all work. But whatever the case, it still remains an persistent, annoying stain on a movie that is otherwise lovely to look at.
In fact, this clashing of incompatible parts plagues every corner of the film. The CGI is beautiful. The footage is beautiful. But the two together is an eyesore. The designs of the animals are photorealistic, impressively so. But they also wear clothes and talk and act like cartoon animals. Even the comedy is this contrast of clean, general audience-pleasing silliness and something more Python-esque.
On the surface, this is a quaint children’s film adapted from a quaint children’s story. It’s cute. It’s sweet. It’s simple. This is a movie with a bright, rich color palette, a positive message, and characters who act like they’re in a cartoon–big gestures, over-the-top speech patterns, and even taking cartoonish amounts of punishment. At times, it’s like watching an old Bugs Bunny short. Only this time, Bugs and Elmer Fudd are speaking with a British accent.
But at the same time, Peter Rabbit is also a movie that very much wants to be a self-aware comedic take on a well-known story. One in which the humor is skewed towards the now-grown readers who read the book as children. Because while the world of the humans is big and bright and silly, Peter and company are all dry wit and pithy comments. At times, it goes full Chuck Jones with the way it comments on and experiments with the rules of its own world.
In both cases, the writing and delivery and timing are all excellent. But it bounces back and forth between these two very distinct comedic styles that the movie feels like it was spliced together from two very different takes on the same script. On the one hand, I want to believe this was done to make the movie palatable to the parents who would be taking their children to see this movie. And on the other, the dry wit, self-awareness, and introspective absurdist nature is so prevalent that it feels like it was always a movie intended for adults that had the more child-friendly humor thrown in at the behest of a studio exec who got cold feet.
MOVIE WITH NO AUDIENCE
In the end, Peter Rabbit could have been one of two things. It could have been an excellent but ultimately rehashed children’s film with a charming cast, a great message about becoming a better, well-rounded person, and some lovely animation to go along with all of that. It also could have been a clever, mature breakdown of the dark, strange, and simplistic nature of these sorts of children’s stories we all grew up with.
Unfortunately, this movie tried to be both. And in doing so, Peter Rabbit reveals that it doesn’t know what sort of movie it wants to be, nor what sort of audience it was hoping to reach. Children are likely to be bored by how little goes on and the sluggish pace it all happens at, with much of the humor being utterly lost on them. And while adults will get much more mileage from the comedy, they’re just as likely to be bored by the simplicity and shallowness of everything else.
The one question I had from beginning to end–and in fact, still have at this point–is this: Who is this movie for?
The movie doesn’t know. And as a result, neither do I. I certainly enjoyed it enough to know there’s an audience somewhere for this film. But I suspect that it’s also a very small one. So except for those who are fine with a movie that is a surprisingly pleasant waste of time, Peter Rabbit is a NO CHILL.