Chances are, Beatrix Potter would be flattered to know that one day, more than a century after she published “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” her most beloved character would be reinterpreted on screen not as a traditional cartoon (even though her work paved the way for the likes of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse) but as a photo-real, fully anthropomorphic rabbit, complete with opposable thumbs and a tiny blue jacket. Certainly, that much “Peter Rabbit” gets right, although Sony’s new half-digital/live-action hybrid takes entirely too many liberties with everything else.
Despite the fact she dressed her critters in human clothes and frequently painted them standing upright, Potter took great pains to capture their natural, animal-like qualities. In theory, the folks at Sony Pictures Animation (the studio behind “Stuart Little”) and Animal Logic (which brought us “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web”) seem like the perfect stewards of that legacy. And yet, director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) and co-writer Rob Lieber thrust Peter into what feels like an elaborate Tom and Jerry cartoon, as the crafty bunny finds himself caught in an escalating arms race with the heir to Mr. McGregor’s garden.
Yes, it’s impressive from a visual effects standpoint (not just virtual fur coats that seem to rustle in the wind, but the degree to which the CG critters interact with their environments, matting the grass and kicking up gravel). However, had Potter lived to see what Hollywood has cooked up for her mischievous hero (who was sent to bed without supper in her own didactic tale), she almost certainly would have preferred for Peter (charmingly voiced by James Corden) and his three more cautious sisters — Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley) — to have wound up in one of Mrs. McGregor’s infamous rabbit pies.
That said, children’s entertainment being what it is today, hardly anyone will be surprised to learn that Peter now sings along with Vampire Weekend and uses expressions such as “chill” and “crushed it,” or that Cotton-Tail pours one out for her departed homies whenever Mr. McGregor’s name is mentioned. (Did we mention that Mr. McGregor bites it early in the first act?) As if to signal that this isn’t your grandparents’ “Peter Rabbit,” the movie kills off the long-eared trespasser’s longtime nemesis (played here by Sam Neill, virtually unrecognizable with his bulging eyes and crazy-old-man beard) just as he gets his hands on the vermin who’s been stealing his veggies.
Potter herself appears, in a manner of speaking, as Mr. McGregor’s next-door neighbor, and the Rabbit family’s closest ally, Bea (Rose Byrne). An aspiring artist and amateur naturalist, Bea spends most of her time making horrible abstract oil paintings (some kind of joke, largely miscalculated), but is also capable of creating extremely detailed old-timey watercolors (which anyone will recognize as the book’s original illustrations) — some of which spring to life to create a few of the movie’s most charming sequences.
Quite inexplicably, Byrne’s smiley, yet simple-minded character appears to have been conceived backwards: In her art, Bea anthropomorphizes the woodland creatures that surround her home, and yet, she is the last to believe that they can really talk (or use their paws to set off detonators, for that matter). Somehow, it seems as if she should be alone in recognizing the secret lives of animals, and that the point of the movie ought to be convincing Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), who inherits his great-uncle’s bucolic cottage, that there’s more to these creatures than meets the eye.
Instead, the movie plays like a variation on another of Potter’s stories, “The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse,” in which two mice — one from the city, the other from the country — visit one another, only to decide that the quite prefer life where each of them was raised. After being unceremoniously discharged from the toy department of Harrods department store in London, Thomas heads to the Lake District to sell his newly inherited estate — which has since been destroyed by a rowdy rodent house party.
Drawing from Potter’s extended menagerie of characters, this peculiar set piece (a glimpse into the anarchy that might result if Peter Rabbit actually got his way) includes such unruly guests as a waistcoat-wearing badger (Tommy Brock), the snooty Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), and prickly Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia). Kids are also likely to appreciate a loud-mouth rooster (Will Reichelt) who announces each new day in a state of discombobulated panic, although one wonders how long these creatures would enjoy the spoils of Mr. McGregor’s garden before being forced to grow up and learn the ways of agriculture.
Never mind such quibbles. The moral here is, “They were here first, we’re the latecomers” — which is a helpful lesson for modern-day kids to hear (Potter herself bequeathed some 4,000 acres to Britain’s National Trust), although somewhat impractical as far as pest-control is concerned. That said, Thomas is rather extreme in his methods, employing rusty garden tools, grisly traps, electrified fences, and even dynamite in his attempts to solve his rabbit infestation — each of which Peter manages to turn against him. (Fortunately, they stop just short of using poison.)
Don’t forget, Bea loves the creatures, which complicates things somewhat when a rather implausible romance blooms almost instantly between the two humans, which only serves to escalate the stakes on Peter’s side — not that it makes much sense. Absolutely no one in the audience is rooting for him and Bea to wind up together (that’s an icky idea), and if Peter succeeds in driving Thomas back to the city, some new owner’s just going to come in and find a way to keep the rabbits out of the garden. That means, everyone’s going to have to learn to get along, and in order to do that, the movie has to concoct some elaborate détente where everyone begs one another’s forgiveness. But that leaves at least one apology still owed: to Potter and all her fans.