Purists who cherish Beatrix Potter’s picture books about country critters with human traits may want to pass on “Peter Rabbit,” a smarty-pants update on the Edwardian-era “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” The hybrid of live action and animation is quite handsomely rendered and amusing, as it happens. But its creators overindulge, to the point of crassness, in cliches drawn from action movies and pop culture.
Potter’s gently humorous prose and wondrous illustrations made her tales timeless. But with “Peter Rabbit,” director Will Gluck and co-screenwriter Rob Lieber aim to prove that there’s no classic that can’t be improved by an injection of modernity, all with an eye to mass-market appeal (read: ka-ching).
Although largely shot in Australia, the film, like the book, takes place mostly in England’s Lake District. And the production design (by Roger Ford) has a picturesque quality that harks back to the world of Potter, whose drawings — echoed in animated sketches and paintings by the rabbits’ favorite human, Bea (Rose Byrne) — are given considerable screen time.
A free-spirited artist, Bea lives in a cottage next to Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), where she has befriended a rabbit named Peter (voice of James Corden), as well as his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, along with their lop-eared cousin Benjamin Bunny (played by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley and Colin Moody, respectively). Other Potter characters make cameo appearances, including the frog Jeremy Fisher (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle the hedgehog (pop star Sia). All have been animated with furry warmth by Aussie effects house Animal Logic, under Rob Coleman’s direction. Apart from the cheeky Peter, toward whose smart-alecky, riffy chatter the film is clearly weighted, there’s a genuine sweetness and camaraderie among most of the animals.
We first encounter Peter as he’s racing toward McGregor’s garden with a raid in mind. When the film’s narrator (Robbie) observes that Peter wears a blue coat — “and no pants” — it’s clear this isn’t your great-grandmother’s rabbit tale.
Long ago, Peter was warned by his mother to steer clear of McGregor’s garden, since Peter’s father was caught there and baked in a pie. But the danger-loving rabbit feasts brazenly on McGregor’s produce, until the old man comes after him with rake and hoe. Then McGregor suddenly drops dead. At Peter Rabbit’s invitation, every wild creature for miles around comes to celebrate at his house.
Enter McGregor’s persnickety great-nephew and heir, Thomas (Gleeson again, in a rather too-sour turn), who has gone a mite berserk after being passed over for a promotion at the Harrods department store in London. Now jobless, he comes to the countryside to fix up and sell his great-uncle’s home. What he doesn’t count on is Peter’s intention to force him out, or Peter’s jealousy when Thomas and Bea fall in love. Man and beast go to war, keeping it under Bea’s radar at first.
That’s when the narrative goes awry. The climactic battle, complete with nonlethal explosions and electrocutions, reveals Thomas to be a rabbit-hater, and Peter a destructive trickster. The rift that opens between Bea and the two combatants feels somehow terribly contrived. From there until the requisite happy ending, the story loses some of its emotional weight, if not its humor.
At least we learn one thing: Rabbits touch foreheads to apologize. Filmmakers who mess with the classics, not so much.
PG. At area theaters. Contains some mildly gross humor and silly battles. 89 minutes.