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As you might have guessed and/or feared, Will Gluck’s screen adaptation of Peter Rabbit departs fairly significantly from Beatrix Potter’s beloved children’s tales. But while the film does insist on its own irreverence a bit too much at the outset — it opens with a group of birds inspirationally singing, “You’re only as small as your dreams,” before they get abruptly knocked out of the sky — it offers plenty of lively fun once it settles down, and wisely keeps the pandering to a minimum.
Instead, the changes here have brought the familiar farmer vs. wildlife tale up to date in more intriguing ways. The biggest reinvention arrives when the eternal struggle between Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill) and Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, and tremendously well-animated), the de facto leader of the family of bunnies raiding the man’s vegetable patch, comes to a seemingly abrupt end when McGregor keels over dead — the result of a lifetime of bad habits and, presumably, unchecked and ceaseless rage toward the surrounding fauna. The farm is then inherited by McGregor’s great nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), an obsessively organized former floor manager in Harrods toy department who has been suspended from his job. Sniveling city boy Thomas hates the country, and merely wants to clean the farm up, flip it, and use the money to open his own toy store across the street from his old employer, as some sort of revenge for their bypassing him for a promotion.
He arrives to find, however, a farm in utter ruin, taken over by a gleeful army of animals. Thus, the war between the species is reignited. But Thomas has to fight the battle clandestinely, because the young man also falls for beautiful local artist Bea (Rose Byrne), who lives in a small house next door and has befriended the rabbits, particularly Peter. (Bea’s drawings and paintings of Peter’s family and exploits naturally bear a similarity to Beatrix Potter’s own illustrations.) As Bea and Thomas get closer, Peter begins to feel pangs of jealousy. This adds an extra level of surreal urgency to their conflict.
Thomas’s struggle against the creatures involves things like firecrackers and electric fences, but Gluck thankfully doesn’t overdo the pyrotechnics. Instead, we get plenty of opportunities for fast-paced slapstick, and Gleeson — a fine actor who in recent years has ably demonstrated his versatility in everything from The Last Jedi to Ex Machina to Brooklyn to The Revenant — turns out to be an inspired physical comedian as well. With his savage energy and lanky, angular frame, he’s a whirlwind of increasingly flustered actions and reactions. Plus, he’s got a vaguely Jared Kushner–ian face that makes him oh-so-punchable: I could watch him fly helplessly across a room after being electrocuted all day long.
But even with all that fighting, flying, falling, and flailing, Peter Rabbit manages to keep the gentle spirit of the original stories alive. It ultimately forsakes comeuppance in favor of acceptance — and does so in somewhat unpredictable ways. Ultimately, it’s a fine line that Gluck & Co. walk: They’ve managed to bring just enough anarchy and wiseassery to this beloved character to infuse him with fresh life, but without draining the material of the generosity and softness that have allowed it to endure in the first place.