The cinemas finally reopened this week and what better way to celebrate than with Peter Rabbit 2? You’ll probably be thinking that there are plenty of better ways to celebrate than with Peter Rabbit 2, particularly if you saw the first Peter Rabbit, which was a travesty (I think. I slept through most of it). However, while this sequel has none of the smarts of, say, Toy Story or Paddington, the franchise is getting there. It’s certainly an improvement on the original (I stayed awake, mostly) and who knows, by Peter Rabbit 798, which seems inevitable, it may have actually nailed it.
The film is directed by Will Gluck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Burleigh. Gluck was also at the helm for the first film, which was heavily criticised for a general charmlessness and failing to capture the spirit of the Beatrix Potter books. Here’s what I wrote in my notes at the time, prior to nodding off: ‘Why is this Peter such a tool?’ Still, it did good box office, and children have loved it, which is all that counts. Alas. (There have been 23 Pokemon films to date, and that’s also not been driven by critical acclaim.)
Many elements are reprised here. Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson return as Bea and Thomas, while James Corden reprises the voice of Peter. Other celebrity voices include Margot Robbie (Flopsy), Elizabeth Debicki (Mopsy) and Lennie James as a criminal bunny, Barnabas. I have always been baffled by these big-money voice hires as children don’t care and I’ve never heard an adult say: ‘I must see Peter Rabbit. It has Margot Robbie’s voice in it and I’m such a fan of Margot Robbie’s voice.’ But there you are.
This time out Bea and Thomas are married and have created a makeshift family with the rabbits. (Thomas was against them in the first film. Now he’s resigned.) Bea is Potter, essentially, and she’s self-published her Peter Rabbit adventure, with its beautiful illustrations. But now a big-name publisher (played by David Oyelowo) is after the rights. She could be huge, he tells them both. She just needs to be more commercial. He has another author and he went more commercial and ‘the critics have been hit and miss but it’s number one in 21 countries’. This is the film hitting back at its detractors, which is quite clever, but it returns to this theme so many times it does eventually feel self-congratulatory. (See? See how we’ve made a joke of it?)
While Bea frets about ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’ where’s Peter? He’s peeled off for his own adventure. Having been mooted as the ‘villain’ in a new series of books, because he is so mischievous, he runs away to become… a villain. No, it doesn’t make much sense. He then falls in with a criminal gang and must find his ‘true self’ and blah-de-blah.
The CGI is glorious, stunning, fantastic. But it’s story, not spectacle, that truly matters and this is over-stuffed, with even the subplots having subplots, and further elements that make no sense whatsoever. (Why can the humans sometimes hear what the rabbits are saying and sometimes not?) Plus it too often resorts to slapstick physical violence, so it becomes repetitive. But whereas Peter was too knowing last time out, and also quite a nasty piece of work, he is more likeable here, and Corden doesn’t feel as miscast.
There are also a few decent jokes. At one point a group of animals raid a human’s fridge and note: ‘There’s the bottle of champagne they’re saving for the special day that will never come… so sad,’ which exactly describes my fridge, so I did laugh. There’s also a jogging fox that’s funny.
I don’t think this will ever become a beloved classic, but it’s superior to the first film, and children will love it. As they do.