Saturday, 17 March 2018

Peter Rabbit – laughs aplenty, but no Paddington

Take a beloved, anthropomorphised children’s character, add in top-notch animation, give it a bit of modern attitude and pow! you have a bona fide cinematic hit.

This seems to the thinking behind Peter Rabbit, Will Gluck’s new film, which is based on the stories of Beatrix Potter.

It’s entirely possible that Sony and co also thought that they could emulate Paddington, the first film of which was released in 2014, to almost universal acclaim. News of Gluck’s project first surfaced in April 2015.

It has already proved a success at the box office (it’s taken $123.6m against a budget of $50m at the time of writing), if not so much critically.

It’s been suggested that Potter would be rolling in her grave. Now it’s difficult to believe that, if you took the Tardis and visited her at her farm, sometime before her death in 1943, and showed her this film, she would be enraptured. Because this really is a different time.

Indeed, in 1938, Potter turned down a plan from Disney to film the story. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I am not very hopeful about the result. They propose to use cartoons; it seems that a succession of figures can be joggled together to give an impression of motion. I don’t think the pictures would be satisfactory ... I am not troubling myself about it!”

If we want to continue the comparisons, Paddington creator Michael Bond was writing a lot more recently, so his stories are far less difficult to update – indeed, he even appeared in the first film, so it’s safe to assume his approval.

This Peter Rabbit retains nothing of the late-Victorian gentility and pastoral quality of Potter’s original tale (written in 1893 and first published nine years later), even though the creative team includes a number of her original illustrations, supposedly painted here by struggling artist Bea, one of the two main human characters.

The plot is simple and continues the scenario set up but Potter: the ongoing struggle between Mr McGregor and the rabbits over the produce in the former’s garden – a struggle that we know claimed Peter’s father in days gone by.

Here, when the old man’s heart gives out in the middle of a particularly tough battle, the rabbits and their friends believe they have ensured the garden is theirs for ever, along with the house.

But that’s before McGregor’s fastidious nephew Thomas arrives – initially to sell his inherited property, before becoming smitten by near neighbour and rabbit lover Bea.

Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson turn in sound performances as Bea and Thomas, but at the end of the day, this is mostly about the animals.

The animation is simply outstanding. Much of the voice characterisation is fine, but while James Corden as Peter is nowhere near as irritating as he can be, he’s also too old and too knowing to really make it work.

Indeed, that knowing quality is something that the film seems set on – perhaps in an effort to distance itself from the charm of Paddington even at the same time as time as trying to hitch itself to the same wagon. If there is a sense that it doesn’t entirely know what it wants to be, then perhaps that’s not surprising.

It was mostly filmed in Australia, which probably explains why it rarely manages to actually look like the English Lakes and why there is nothing even remotely like a Cumbrian accent to be heard.

There are, however, plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (the children in the cinema clearly loved it) and the animation really is excellent – and for a post-work, Friday evening trip to the movies, that’s not to be sniffed at.

Then again, perhaps in 25 years, it’ll have attained cult status, where showings are attended by furries, who pelt the screen with blackberries at the appropriate moment. Stranger things have happened …

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