This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com
It is an unequivocally bad sign when, a half-hour into a movie made for children, a child can be heard to say, “I don’t like this movie.” No amount of shushing from his mother could erase the echo of these words. A grownup critic feeling particularly curmudgeonly is one thing—but when the intended audience voices its displeasure, you know there is a problem.
The titular hero of Peter Rabbit is an animated bunny based on the popular children’s-book character from Beatrix Potter. He is, as the film’s marketing loudly proclaims, “a rebel.” He likes to dash into the garden of mean old Mr. McGregor, even though—or perhaps because—his father met his end at McGregor’s hands, which then swiftly gave him over to Mrs. McGregor, who baked the patriarch into a pie. Peter’s mother has also passed away, but Peter, his three sisters and his cousin, Benjamin, have found a substitute mother figure in the kindly human Bea (Rose Byrne).
Things are looking particularly sunny when old Mr. McGregor suffers a heart attack and is carted away in “an ice-cream truck with lights,” but soon McGregor’s persnickety great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, who, like Byrne, is really too good for this) arrives. Thomas is not only intent on keeping the rabbits from his garden, but, even more galling, on wooing Bea. Fight between rabbit and redhead ensues.
It isn’t that Peter Rabbit, from Easy A director Will Gluck and his co-writer Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), is poorly made. It is sleek and swift and has a partying vibe due in large part to a soundtrack of ultra-contemporary pop songs, the majority of which I’m not sure we will still be listening to a decade hence. The animation is excellent: You can see the individual bristles of the rabbits’ fur, and their running is wonderfully uncanny. Both the voice work and live-action talent are top-notch: In addition to Gleeson and Byrne, we have Gleeson’s Goodbye Christopher Robin co-star Margot Robbie as the narrator and the voice of the bunny Flopsy, as well as Daisy Ridley as the voice of Cotton-Tail, Elizabeth Debicki as the voice of Mopsy, “Broadchurch”’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Thomas’ former boss, and James Corden as the voice of Peter. The story gets going directly from the opening sequence. No scenes are wasted; nothing drags the tale down.
The trouble is the tone of the film. Between the narration (“In a story like this…”) and the jocular, winking dialogue of the rabbits (“That’s my character flaw!”), there are enough meta-asides to border on cynicism. Peter is very loud and very brash and all-around exhausting. He, like the movie, does have a heart, and the film tries to espouse a moral, showing how both Peter’s and Thomas’ revenge ploys lead to unhappiness. But the balance seems to be off. There is too much wham-bam shtick and far too much winking to the audience. It is exceedingly loud, exceedingly fast, so that the impression of noise is great…of substance, in comparison, small. We are taken out of the story too many times to enjoy it. What worked 17 years ago when Shrek was released no longer charms, or else the meta-comedy fails in Peter Rabbit because the movie takes this approach to such an extreme. What sincerity there is simply cannot compete with the cacophony of wrecking-ball action sequences and fourth-wall destruction that surrounds it.
Which is too bad, because the Beatrix Potter books are terrific, and you just know that somewhere in the world there is an unsolicited screenplay that does her characters justice. For this Peter Rabbit, character is regrettably beside the point.