‘Peter Rabbit’ movie misses magic of Beatrix Potter books

For fans of Beatrix Potter, the new “Peter Rabbit” movie is more than a letdown.

Potter’s books — the first, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” was published back in 1902 — are a specific kind of charming. They are slim and to the point, buoyed by their simple, lovely illustrations.

The “Peter Rabbit” movie, a combination of live action and animation, is frantic, tries too hard to be funny and seems too desperately stretched out, marred by far too many “needle drops” (i.e., gratuitous pop songs).

In the book, Peter breaks into Mr. McGregor’s garden to steal some vegetables, gets lost, is chased by the angry farmer, loses his blue coat, and comes home wet after hiding in a watering can. He is scolded, and (presumably), learns his lesson.

The movie goes on longer, but has less of a point. Peter (voiced by James Corden) has three sisters, Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-tail (voiced by Daisy Ridley), as well as cousin Benji (voiced by Colin Moody).

Pretty local artist Bea (Rose Byrne) is kind to the rabbits, and even takes Peter and his family inside when it rains. Peter misses his dead parents (they were eaten in pies), and views Bea as a kind of surrogate mom.

Peter is also arrogant and reckless and pretends to be in charge of his little quintet. As the movie starts, he breaks into Mr. McGregor’s garden, but after a cutthroat chase, McGregor (Sam Neill) keels over and dies.

A fastidious distant nephew McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), works in a toy shop in London and gets the news about his unknown uncle.

Hoping he can sell the farm and use the money to open his own shop, he goes there, but finds the animals are running rampant. He also falls for Bea.

So McGregor must try to get rid of them without her knowing. Meanwhile, Peter wants McGregor to leave, and sets a series of vicious traps to discourage him.

In other words, “Peter Rabbit” is mostly about violence and deception. Weirdly, it becomes easier to root for McGregor than it does Peter. Gleeson brings a tiny measure of sadness and loneliness to his role, and, as a human, he carries these things off.

Peter is supposed to easy to relate to because he misses his parents; but because he’s animated as an arrogant, yappy whirligig, he seems like kind of a jerk.

Frankly, he’s not dissimilar to Russell Brand’s “E.B.” character from the animated 2011 Easter movie “Hop.”

Great portions of “Peter Rabbit” scamper by without much laughter or joy, although the movie certainly tries very hard. It sometimes attempts a “meta-ness,” lamely commenting upon its own storytelling, although it can’t decide whether humans are able to “hear” the rabbits speaking.

Its greatest moments come when it evokes the original art style from the books, especially in what appear to be hand-drawn animated sequences. Yet it’s in these moments it becomes clear just what “Peter Rabbit” is missing.

Recently, the wonderful “Paddington 2” managed to be wondrous, hilarious and kindhearted, all at the same time, effortlessly.

“Peter Rabbit,” on the other hand, is all effort.

Peter Rabbit
Two stars
Starring James Corden (voice), Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Margot Robbie (voice), Daisy Ridley (voice)
Written by Will Gluck, Rob Lieber
Directed by Will Gluck
Rated PG
Running time 1 hour, 33 minutes

Jeffrey M. Anderson

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