Beatrix Potter’s beloved literary character Peter Rabbit suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in his contemporized big-screen debut. In 2018’s “Peter Rabbit,” his headstrong, mischievous spirit didn’t bear more than a passing resemblance to the fundamental virtues the author had fused into her expansive children’s book series. He was reckless, arrogant and downright wicked, barely learning much from the ramifications of his dastardly, chaotic shenanigans. The release itself even caused a kerfuffle over allergy bullying, with some parents and one major organization objecting to a scene where the CG hare terrorizes his harried human adversary with an allergen, which led to the studio having to issue an apology.
But in returning director Will Gluck’s “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” we reunite with a far more remorseful, practically rehabilitated rabble-rouser, who’s struggling to rectify how the world sees him versus how he sees himself. How fitting. His journey from selfish to selfless will lead him into interesting introspection, but also redemption in the eyes of those who didn’t take a shine to the earlier film. This superior sequel serves as both a meta-commentary on his humbling past antics and a pivotal point for the eponymous protagonist. It’s an astute, entertaining, light-hearted mix of slapstick and self-reflexive humor commingling with enlightened, sharp sentiments about individualism and commercialism (the latter of which Potter herself wrestled with, and eventually pioneered).
In the time since the battle between Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and persnickety gardener Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) reached its pinnacle and a truce was declared, the rebellious trickster has seen the error of his ways. Mostly. He still escapes into whimsical fantasies of causing destruction and mayhem for his surrogate mother Bea (Rose Byrne) and her newfound love, his former nemesis, especially during their wedding. Likewise, Thomas may have forgiven his fuzzy stepson of sorts for the damage he caused, but their traumatic past hasn’t been forgotten.
Peter’s actions are continually misinterpreted as suspicious by Thomas even though, at Bea’s behest, the pair are attempting to rebuild trust in their relationship. Making matters worse, Peter has unwittingly stumbled into inescapable notoriety now that Bea’s first illustrated novel — a story chronicling his prior naughty behavior on the well-preserved grounds of their farm in Windemere — has been published and popularized, cementing his image for a lifetime of readers.
The book’s overnight success captures the eye of wealthy, debonair publishing magnate Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who seeks to woo the author into signing over the rights to her creation. His initial ideas to expand the world of Peter, sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Aimee Horne, respectively), and cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) give pause to Bea and Thomas. They’re put off by the misguided portrayals of the bunnies — specifically Peter, who is cast as a villainous “Bad Seed.”
Feeling the futility of his efforts to change this incorrect impression, Peter decides to embrace this new label, hooking up with a crew of malicious street criminals led by grizzled bunny Barnabas (Lennie James), who professes to have been friends with Peter’s deceased father. They’re cooking up an ambitious heist in which Peter’s expertise would be of tremendous value. However, when the scheme inevitably goes awry, it puts Peter’s real family in harm’s way.
This silly sequel doesn’t totally disavow itself of its weaker predecessor. Residue of past misdeeds still remains, from the faint hint of Peter’s borderline Oedipal complex (seen in a daydream where he stops Bea and Thomas’ marriage), to the cartoonish construction and execution of violence (shown in the sequence where Peter antagonizes a mean mommy). Gags are repeated, whether it be the “deer in the headlights” bit, or an entirely expected fourth-wall break. Yet Gluck and co-writer Patrick Burleigh creatively innovate, using these elements as building blocks for everyone’s betterment. Byrne and Gleeson get to flex their comedic muscles a smidge more, he with a few prime pratfalls and she with perfectly-pitched dialogue delivery. While the aesthetic choices are much the same, there’s a modicum of profundity uncovered within the narrative’s comedy and characters.
The filmmakers have clearly experienced a maturation when it comes to their storytelling approach. Peter’s continually-evolving journey toward self-acceptance blossoms within the story’s sentimental leanings. The animals attain their own autonomous arcs, separate but equal to their newlywed caretakers’ quests to become successful entrepreneurs and responsible parents. Needle drops on the soundtrack are occasionally on-the-nose, but are handled sparingly, giving voice to Peter’s tumultuous inner psyche. Action-driven set pieces, like the hilariously convoluted Farmers Market heist and the outlandish climactic rescue montage, heighten the bombastic atmosphere. Overall, the film achieves a greater tonal balance between darker, scarier moments (like animals being captured by a pet shop for adoption) and lighter, adorable moments (like Flopsy’s yearning to individualize herself from her twin sister, or Cottontail getting hopped up on sugary jelly beans).
The sequel’s prevailing theme to always be true to yourself may superficially appear slight, but the filmmakers have undoubtedly tapped into deeper levels. Kids often find themselves misrepresented in their parents’ eyes, so there’s little doubt that the headier thematic concepts will resonate on with them while simultaneously equipping their parents with tools for better understanding. Better yet, the broader morality messages within the margins of this second chapter pay due respect to the creator’s legacy, making for a hopping good modernized tale.