Could Beatrix Potter have imagined a movie adaptation of her Tale of Peter Rabbit with Eminem on the soundtrack?
No, I suppose she couldn’t have. She died in 1943, after all, so she probably would have had a hard time imagining Eminem at all.
The question was rhetorical, anyway. That’s what we’ve got, a new Peter Rabbit with CGI bunnies and other cute little creatures interacting with live-action human actors, engaging in broad slapstick and bickering family dynamics and slyly “meta” and “fourth wall” gags, all driven along by popular songs.
Even so, it’s a little surprising how much of Potter’s 1902 tale survives in this modern- dress version.
Peter’s siblings and cousin, the encouraging sparrows, Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), the sieve, the flower pots in the shed, the blue jacket used as a scarecrow, even the grim backstory of Peter’s father— these and other elements trace back to Potter’s brief but effective heist thriller and juvenile delinquency drama.
But this story line can only take the movie so far.
After that, director Will Gluck, who previously helmed the recent modern version of Annie, and his co-writer Rob Lieber concoct a deus ex machina for old man McGregor, then bring in his nephew (Domhnall Gleeson) and heir from London, a control-freak Harrod’s employee.
This guy goes to war with Peter and his pals as well, but must keep it secret from his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), a sweet painter who adores the rabbits.
Some of the battles which follow seem to owe almost as much to the Loony Tunes, if not to Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, as to Potter, and while at times they become a bit tediously repetitive, overall the film is visually deft and light-footed and enjoyably anarchic.
Even so, some of the funniest passages are verbal rather than visual, throwaway gags like a store clerk’s explanation of the human urge to anthropomorphize animals.
The voice cast, led by James Corden as Peter— who also sings a pretty song over the end credits— includes Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Matt Lucas and Sia.
The kids in the audience with whom I saw this film seemed to find it hilarious, and on the whole I was pretty amused myself.
I thought it struck a nice balance between edgy mischief and just the right degree of non-sappy warmth.
If you remain unmoved by the sight of the rabbits apologizing by inclining their foreheads together, you’re tougher than I am.