" Because it’s a great book doesn’t mean you have to like it "
— John Sealy, Stone Reader

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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James Corden’s take on Peter Rabbit is the hare apparent to rein over gently irreverent family comedy-fantasy.

Some Taradiddle in Windermere

Peter Rabbit (in the blue jacket) with Rose Byrne (the human)
Peter Rabbit (in the blue jacket) with Rose Byrne (the human)

Like a visit from the Easter Bunny on Easter Sunday, Peter Rabbit is a pleasant surprise. The visual effects combining live action with CGI critters is superb, the story is suitably heartwarming and the humor aims higher than the average PG-rated “family” movie, avoiding gross-out poop and fart jokes in favor of a sophistication that treads comfortably close to Pixar territory, or at least Wallace & Gromit turf.

It all starts with a ruse.

Birds flutter through the air, the ground below reminiscent of the alive hills of The Sound of Music. The birds begin to sing. It’s a sappy song of hope and inspiration. The lyrics are semi-cringeworthy. “You’re only as small as your dreams.”

And then there’s a quick course correction. The narrator (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) jumps in to acknowledge this fairy tale isn’t that kind of story.

Phew – 93 minutes of childish misery averted.

No. This isn’t some children’s movie aiming for the stroller set. This is an all-ages crowd-pleaser about a hero in a blue coat and no pants.

Coexistence and Conservation

The lead humans are pretty good characters and they’re able to hold their own against the flash and furry of bunnies, pigs, frogs, wolves and other anthropomorphized outdoor creatures.

First, there’s Bea (Rose Byrne, X-Men: First Class). Bea moved to the English countryside to get in touch with her inner artist. Her paintings of people, places and things are... abstract, to put it nicely. Her paintings of rabbits, though, look like they’re right out of a Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit book. That’s a sweet tie-in, albeit rather quirkily executed.

She’s befriended Peter and his family, which includes Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) — think of her as Rey Rabbit — and a trio of other bunnies.

Second, there’s Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who inherits the farm next to Bea’s property. It’s his great uncle who terrorized Peter and other members of the non-human community. Following Farmer McGregor’s heart attack, the farm was entrusted to Thomas, an obsessive-compulsive manager at Harrods, deep in the heart of London. Gunning for a promotion, Thomas is gutted when the position is given to a supreme slacker completely unworthy of the job, but who’s got relatives in all the right places.

As it’s explained to Thomas, nepotism is practically in England’s charter.

Perfect timing, then, to investigate this country property. Thomas has a nefarious plan: Fix it up, sell it for a huge windfall, then return triumphantly to London and setup a toy store right next to Harrods — a move of the first order destined to spell doom for London’s legendary megastore.

Dream big, young Thomas, dream big.

Scrabbled Easter Eggs

Purely in terms of crass commercialism, mining Beatrix Potter’s work for new big-screen material is a stroke of genius. First published professionally in 1903, there are 23 tales for the picking — and Potter herself initiated the licensing of her characters for quality merchandise. Peter Rabbit’s a good story. The life of Beatrix Potter herself is a good story. And it all follows in the pawsteps of Paddington making his way to the big screen in a similar live-action/CGI blend.

Director Will Gluck (the ill-fated Annie remake of 2014) and co-writer Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) — both Americans — manage to pull off a magic trick — yeah, kind of like pulling a rabbit out of a hat — by cobbling together a story that holds the British source material in high regard (right down to recreating some of Potter’s illustrations within the animated mayhem) while also endowing it with modern sensibilities that keep sentimentalism fairly well contained.

No doubt there are Easter eggs to be found here and there, such as in Bea’s paintings and cozy house, as well as in Harrods’ toy department. They’re easy to spot during a game of Scrabble played between Bea and Thomas. It’s pretty hilarious how there’s a theme of a downtrodden life in Thomas’ word selection. As for Bea, there’s a tip of the bonnet to Beatrix Potter and a much softer, kinder world.

Given Potter’s own conservationist leanings and historical legacy, it’s fitting Bea and Peter have a similar bent, throwing in the occasional environmental message alongside a rather overstated “humans last” mindset that would allow the wildlife to run free in McGregor’s farm. But it’s fair game and certainly a worthwhile topic to throw into the mix of themes including family, belonging and self-fulfillment.