Have you ever wondered, “What if Peter Rabbit was done as a Guy Ritchie movie?”
How does the quaint little world of Beatrix Potter’s country garden and rabbit burrows mix with tough-talking city gangs trying to pull off complicated heists?
Australia is the first country to find out with Peter Rabbit 2 releasing here months before the US and a week before New Zealand – it’s a reversal of when the first movie was released, Australia lagged weeks behind America.
Featuring live action performances from Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson and David Oyelowo and the voice talents of James Corden, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Colin Moody, Peter Rabbit 2 does what so many of these family movies do when go for round two – they go too big.
Whereas the surprisingly delightful original film was already pushing the boundaries of how far you can take Potter’s gentle stories, the sequel bulldozed the fence and went full tilt. Who needs quiet charm when you can have a chase in a sports car?
The worst part is it’s trying to be so meta about it, building its story around the premise of taking it too far, it’s hard to tell if director Will Gluck, who co-wrote the story with screenwriter Patrick Burleigh, is trying to punk us.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so glaring that this story features a ludicrous mission involving skydiving and ski slopes if there hadn’t just been a scene in which it’s made certain that such things are an artistic compromise of the rabbits’ story.
The wink-wink at the audience does not serve to absolve Peter Rabbit 2 of making that same mistake – it only amplifies it.
All that being said, maybe younger kids won’t care. Maybe they really do want to see Peter, Benjamin, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail on a beach with ukuleles. But all the parents in the audience will find less to grab on to this time around – jokes about Kyoto/Tokyo and a particular Green Day needle drop notwithstanding.
Bea and Thomas have now married, and Peter and his friends have free run of the farm. No one needs to steal or go hungry, although Thomas’ prized tomatoes are off-limits.
Despite his best efforts, Peter feels Thomas still sees him as naughty and feels threatened by Thomas’s desire for a human baby. So, in an act of adolescent rebellion, when the family are in the not-so-big city of Gloucester, Peter runs off and falls in with a gang of thieving animals led by the smooth Barnabas (Lennie James).
Barnabas tells Peter he’s an old friend of Peter’s father and he’s impressed by Peter’s uncanny ability to get in and out of places with the loot. Peter is recruited for the heistiest of heists – where you half-expect Vinnie Jones to pop up from around the corner.
Elsewhere, Bea’s self-published book about Peter and the rabbits is a hit and attracts the attention of a larger publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (Oyelowo), who promises a massive print run, global domination and endless merchandise.
Of course, Nigel doesn’t want Bea to compromise her vision but what if she made a little tweak here and there? Before long, in Bea’s drawings, the rabbits are off to space! Yay for crass commercialism!
It’s always tempting for filmmakers to aim for something bigger in the sequel because no one wants to make the same movie over again – what would be the point? But that ambition is what’s led many astray before if it’s not thoughtfully tied back into what made those stories magical in the first place.
Whereas the first Peter Rabbit film certainly had its antics in Harrods and on the train, most of the action was contained to McGregor’s farm, even if those shenanigans involved dynamite and blueberry allergies.
By displacing most of Peter Rabbit 2 elsewhere, it loses the charm of Potter’s stories because as much as it was about Peter and his friends, it was also the idyllic setting of the countryside that functioned as a character in and of itself.
It’s something Bea understood in the film, but which escaped the filmmakers. In trying to do too much, even its story about family becomes muddled.
Even though the production values are impressive, from its top-notch animation to the transformation of Sydney suburbs into rural England, in casting off that commitment to the spirit of Potter’s stories, Peter Rabbit 2 is ultimately a hollow story let down by its writing.
Peter Rabbit 2 is in cinemas from Thursday, March 25
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