Woe to any character of a beloved British children’s storybook making the leap to the silver screen so soon on the heels of Paddington.
Not that more auspicious timing would have improved the experience of seeing Beatrix Potter’s charming rabbits and countryside critters bop to pop songs, crack crotch jokes and electrocute one another in “Peter Rabbit.”
Still, it is to “Peter Rabbit’s” great detriment that it’s being released when “Paddington 2,” so lovingly suffused with whimsy, is still fresh on the minds of filmgoers. Whereas the latter represents the best of modern children’s tale adaptations, the former represents if not the worst, then certainly the laziest.
Deep in the bucolic British countryside, Peter Rabbit and his three sisters — Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail — are leading lives of plenty, thanks to daily raids on mean old Mr. McGregor’s garden. The siblings lost their father to one of the farmer’s meat pies years ago, but they’re getting tasty revenge, gobbling up all his juiciest produce. Peter (James Corden) is a mischievous bunny, and he takes Mr. McGregor’s escalating threats and deadly traps as challenges rather than warnings.
Then, to Peter’s macabre delight, the old man drops dead (truly, the cartoon bunny brags about it). Party time.
At least, until his nephew shows up to claim his inheritance.
Young Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) looks kinder and gentler than his predecessor, but he’s miles more prissy and particular. He works in the toy section at Harrods department store, where his chief joys — such as he’s capable of experiencing joy — are meticulously arranging dollhouse displays and scrubbing the toilets until they’re clean enough to drink from, a disgusting demonstration to which we’re nearly treated.
After a nervous breakdown, he decides to give the country a whirl, where he promptly wages war on the wildlife that has ransacked his uncle’s estate. The high-strung city boy doesn’t just lay a few traps, but goes all out: electrified fences, sticks of dynamite and gardening hoes wielded as bludgeons.
And he’d get those pesky rabbits too, if it weren’t for his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), a bleeding-heart artist and gentle spirit who believes the bunnies should have free rein over all the earth’s gardens. Before long, Peter and Thomas aren’t just battling over carrots and zucchini; they’re locked in a rivalry for Bea’s affections.
It’s not much of a story, nor is there much character to fuel it. Peter has no personality beyond a tiresome veneer of sarcasm. Without personality there can be no emotional arc, no character growth, no life lessons learned — the crux of great children’s storytelling.
The lack of care is evident down to the film’s soundtrack, a thematically muddled mix tape of top 40 hits over the decades: Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” Close your eyes, and you could be in a grocery store.
For anyone familiar with the original “Peter Rabbit,” it’s a little depressing to see its storybook charm reduced to slapstick. You can only see a person get electrocuted so many times before the gag wears thin, and with it the movie’s welcome.
Barbara VanDenburgh, USA TODAY Network
Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation present a film directed by Will Gluck and written by Gluck and Ron Lieber, based on the characters of Beatrix Potter. Rated PG (for some rude humor and action). Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.