'Peter Rabbit' takes on new nemesis in sassy, silly comic update
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"Peter Rabbit" -- ★ ★ ★
Not as charming or sincere as "Paddington," but a superior variation of "Alvin and the Chipmunks," the CGI/live-action hybrid comedy "Peter Rabbit" runs an engaging gamut of sight gags, cinematic chases and unadulterated dopiness.
"Peter Rabbit" probably won't knock off the socks of purist fans of writer/illustrator Beatrix Potter, whose beloved colored pen and ink drawings in her 1902 book "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" have morphed into crassly commercial computer-animated characters less inspired by classic fairy tales than Road Runner cartoons.
Credit erratic director Will Gluck with constructing a lippity-lippity comedy crammed with a corny-copia of old-school slapstick and clever meta-shtick that skewers its own fantastic silliness along with the very cliches it gleefully employs.
Verbally fleet British late-night talk show host James Corden supplies his titular bunny with wisecracking bravado as he boldly invades the meticulously maintained garden of grumpy Old Mr. McGregor (a bug-eyed, bearded Sam Neill).
Peter receives backup from his formidable sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, played by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley (alias scrappy skater Tonya Harding, Guardian of the Galaxy's Golden High Priestess Ayesha and Jedi warrior Rey).
With siblings like these, Peter (and Colin Moody's cousin Benjamin Bunny) has little to worry about.
Oh, oh! Mr. McGregor abruptly drops dead, prompting an awkward moment in which Peter literally pokes fun at death. Peter and his wildlife buddies take over the farm house in a frat-house orgy of hedonistic fun and face-stuffing.
All that changes with the arrival of a new owner and a shrewd, younger nemesis.
Mr. McGregor's great nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), an uptight, buttoned-down control freak manager at Harrods legendary department store in London, inherits the farm.
He wants to sell the place so he can open his own toy store. But he didn't foresee Peter Rabbit's opposition and his own attraction to Bea (Rose Byrne), his kindly new neighbor and a pretty bad abstract artist in her own right.
Bryne doesn't have much to work with in this sassy, but three-quarters-baked screenplay by Gluck and Rob Lieber. Bea has no problem with her animal friends wearing cute jackets without pants, but she seems shocked to learn they can speak, think and blow things up with dynamite.
Watch Gleeson's performance closely here, because he demonstrates a full-bore commitment to the acting craft that should be shown in all Acting 101 classes.
His conflicted, insecure, yet bullheaded Thomas is a delight to watch as he pushes himself to cartoon lengths without succumbing to hammy or shrill overacting.
When you consider Gleeson can't be interacting with his actual co-stars (who will be inserted later), his over-the-top -- yet always believable -- performance is remarkable.
Gluck's best film so far still remains the high school comedy "Easy A," featuring young Emma Stone's first Oscar-grade performance.
Here, Gluck allows his wild rabbit comedy to peter out near the end, perhaps prompting the youngster behind me at a Saturday morning screening to loudly moan, "I want to go home!"
Which I thought to be an unnecessarily harsh criticism, but it went along nicely with a theme in the movie.
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Starring: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Sam Neill
Directed by: Will Gluck
Other: A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG. 95 minutes