Simon Morris reviews Peter Rabbit, a recreation of the Beatrix Potter classic with state of the art digital animation.
The rise of spectacular-looking recreations of children’s favourites like Peter Rabbit is entirely due to the advances in digital effects.
In the past, the watercolour world of author and illustrator Beatrix Potter could only be rendered in hand-sketched animation. Now everything can be photo-real – or as real as a rabbit and a fox wearing shirts and waistcoats can look.
The original story of Peter Rabbit was fairly minimal – and it’s dealt with here in the first 10 minutes.
Peter invades Old Man McGregor’s garden – Sam Neill behind alarming white whiskers – and comes off badly.
But that’s no way to make a family movie in 2018, so the plot continues, the cast expands enormously with outside Potter characters like Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggy-winkle, and we bring on a new, younger McGregor.
Sam Neill’s version dies suddenly and is replaced by Domnhall Gleason.
Also in the picture is Beatrix Potter herself, but not as we know her. She’s a modern, feisty, greenie type of Beatrix Potter who can be summed up in the words “call me Bea”.
Bea and Thomas McGregor flirt, Thomas pretends not to be a rabbitophobe and Peter Rabbit seethes with jealousy.
Jealousy over Beatrix Potter? These are clearly murky, psychological waters, but fortunately the pace picks up before anyone can get too creeped out. Suffice to say, it’s war.
The bad news – I’m not talking about the bad news for Beatrix Potter fans who are having the vapours over the crimes against Peter Rabbit – is the usual bad news in films like this.
Just as Hollywood hacks defend their output as “one film for them, one for me”, so family films say “one joke for the kids, one joke for us grownups.”
This leads to a certain smirky, sneery tone, winking over the heads of the small fry with jokes about old movies and TV shows.
And for me this is reinforced by the casting of talk-show host James Corden as the voice of Peter. I’m not sure why James Corden usually rubs me up the wrong way. But years of sucking up to celebrities have left him with a bumptious smugness that does the role of Peter Rabbit very few favours.
In fact the smaller roles of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are rather better served by, respectively, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley. They manage to bring something appealing to the film, albeit in very brief snippets.
The rest of the film is a mad hotchpotch of other ones – Home Alone, Shrek, Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie, and of course lashings of Bugs Bunny.
On the plus side, the animation work is spectacularly good, even if we’re used to seeing that these days. And while the critics may carp and cavil, they’re not buying tickets.
The fact is the audience I saw Peter Rabbit with – card-carrying under-10s to a lady and gentleman – seemed to have a wonderful time.
The kids laughed at every pratfall, they thought Peter Rabbit was the greatest character in fiction and they had no problem with the barely coherent plot.
In the end the results came in – two enthusiastic, chocolate-covered thumbs up. It was very dispiriting.