This being 2018, I suppose it’s only to be expected that Peter Rabbit should try to sodomize the farmer with a carrot. Fortunately for Mr. McGregor (played by Sam Neill), to say nothing of the carrot, the ruse doesn’t succeed. Unfortunately for Mr. McGregor, it doesn’t matter: He will soon keel over from a heart attack, making it entirely clear — if the strained comedy and mean-spirited vibes hadn’t already done so — that this isn’t exactly your grandmother’s “Peter Rabbit,” much less Beatrix Potter’s.
Whose is it, then? I’m afraid that 95 minutes spent with this crass menagerie will bring you no closer to an answer. In Potter’s perennially popular stories, as rich in wit and charm as they are in pictorial detail, the spare, elegant storytelling and lovingly hand-drawn illustrations conspire to produce a gently winning spirit of mischief.
The movie, though set in the same serenely gorgeous Lake District countryside, resembles a sloppily tended garden plot where crude sight gags and violent set-pieces flourish like weeds, but anything resembling actual humor or delight refuses to take root.
This is hardly due to a lack of effort on the part of the director, Will Gluck, who showed some astute comedic instincts in movies like “Easy A” and “Friends With Benefits,” and who has clearly tried to transfer those instincts to a more family-friendly context. He and a skilled team of animators have brought Peter Rabbit and his family and friends to life with an appreciable degree of furry verisimilitude. Can we coin a new portmanteau for this — “furry-similitude”? Haha, get it? See what I did there?
Sorry. If you found those last few sentences even remotely obnoxious, you should probably steer clear of “Peter Rabbit.” Like much of what passes for mainstream American comedy nowadays, the movie (which Gluck wrote with Rob Lieber) seems to anticipate a mirthless reception by laughing long and hard at its own jokes. And it stuffs most of those jokes into the mouth of Peter himself, re-imagined here as a kind of organic-produce-munching stand-up artist possessed by the insufferably ingratiating late-night stylings of James Corden.
Once the lovable embodiment of childlike naughtiness, Peter Rabbit is now a long-eared, loud-mouthed narcissist, the kind of creature who, after delivering a semi-sincere apology for his latest misdeeds, pats himself on the back for having “crushed it.” On the receiving end of that apology are Peter’s cousin and sidekick, Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody), and his three sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail. (The latter are voiced, respectively, by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley, though the monotonous tone of their bickering makes them hard to tell apart.)
The family dwells in a burrow near the house and garden of the despicable Mr. McGregor, who not so long ago baked Peter’s father into a pie: So far, so Potter. Elsewhere, however, the writers have unceremoniously eliminated Peter’s mother from the story — the less grown-up supervision and the more dead parents, the better — and invented a modern-day Potter stand-in in the form of Bea (Rose Byrne), an animal-loving painter who’s friendly with the rabbits yet blithely unaware of their ability to talk, scheme and wreak grand-scale havoc.
Shortly after Mr. McGregor keels over, his estate unexpectedly passes to his great-nephew, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), an ambitious, obsessively tidy Type A Londoner who turns out to be the movie’s most tolerable character by a country mile. Thomas is eager to sell the property, which means cleaning it up and evicting Peter and his friends — they include the supercilious Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie) and the amiable hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia) — who have recently turned the place into their own personal party pad.
A curious interspecies triangle ensues in which Thomas and Peter wage open war, turning all manner of weapons against each other (steel traps, explosives, electrified fences) while trying to conceal their destructive tendencies from the sweetly oblivious Bea, whose affections they both covet. Naturally it will all resolve itself in a flurry of tears, hugs and revelations — perhaps an attempt, as disingenuous as it is unsuccessful, to reinstate the sweet, reconciliatory spirit of Beatrix Potter after an hour-and-a-half’s worth of “Looney Tunes”-style pratfalls and incongruous pop songs.
Clearly, not every juxtaposition of live-action humans and computer-generated critters can be as seamless as “Paddington 2,” a movie whose genuine wit and sense of wonderment feel ever more like a balm by comparison. But there is one bright spot in “Peter Rabbit,” and it comes courtesy of Gleeson, who, as his sly recent turn in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” attests, is becoming a young master of self-effacing comic villainy. Valiantly holding the screen opposite an ensemble of noisy four-legged irritants, he finds the humor and pathos in his character’s not-so-paranoid derangement.
But he also taps into a more basic, even primal human instinct, one that confirms the degree to which this wretched movie has betrayed its source’s spirit. He just wants to be rid of the damn rabbits, which is another way of saying he’s impossible not to root for.
Rating: PG, for some rude humor and action
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release