Friday 4 May 2018

Peter Rabbit (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: After the sudden death of farmer Joe McGregor (Sam Neill), Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and his woodland friends use the opportunity to take back the farmer's garden, and his house, for themselves. However, once news of the death reaches Joe's nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), he plans to fix up the house, secure the garden and, if necessary, get rid of any pests that try to sneak into either. As Peter and his friends try to fend off the new neighbour, and Thomas strikes up a friendship with Bea (Rose Byrne), who takes care of Peter and his extended family, both Peter and Thomas are hell-bent on winning this fight.

Knowing what happened last time Corden lent his voice to a Sony animated production, his casting here in the lead is a tad suspect but credit to him for at least working well with the character. Maybe a little too well, but we’ll get to that. Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki are good as the bickering bunny triplets, with Robbie doing quite nicely as the film’s narrator on top of that, and even though their banter can enter monotony at rather disheartening rates, their delivery makes it passable at the very least. Colin Moody as Peter’s cousin Benjamin is a welcome presence as a sorely-needed, if frequently-ignored, voice of reason, and the rest of the voice cast… bloody hell, we’d be all day if I went through everyone here, so just assume that they’re all fine.

Now for the live-action cast, most of whom actually did some moonlit voice acting, and it’s here where the best things in this film are found as far as character. Byrne as Bea(trix Potter, let’s not kid ourselves here) is all things sweet and cheery, a personality that she wears proudly and ends up making for a very comforting central human force for the initial story. Gleeson handles the more emphatic parts of his character quite well, showing real aptitude when it comes time for slapstick, but it’s the way he works with Thomas’ under-the-surface details that warrants some praise. He effectively balances out the half-crazed animal hunter and the hard-done-by worker with control issues with remarkable smoothness, allowing the audience to accept his place as an opposing force while still finding something to like about the guy.
Sam Neill as Thomas’ uncle allows for some yuks early on, perfectly embodying Peter’s observations that “he even mows the grass angry” with how forceful he can get, Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Thomas’ boss handles the required exposition about as well as can be expected, and Felix Williamson’s minor role as Thomas’ business rival… um… isn’t on-screen for any longer than he has to be? Thankfully?

This is a weirdly divided film, in that the quality control as far as the production values go are incredibly varied. Starting with the soundtrack, while it doesn’t carry the same stench of ‘missing the mark’ that Will Gluck’s last attempt at a musical had, it is still a very dated selection of licensed music. It’s like this film was originally made in the mid 2000’s, snap-frozen and has only managed to thaw in 2018. Yeah, the inclusion of songs by Vampire Weekend and an acoustic version of Clean Bandit’s Rather Be definitely feel of this era, but… am I supposed to getting a wave of nostalgia over hearing Basement Jaxx here? Am I supposed to hand-wave away the fact that they not only included a Fort Minor song of all bloody things, but a film-specific re-doing of the song with Mike Shinoda rapping about bunnies? This is incredibly strange, not to mention jarring, but again, Gluck has done much worse.
In terms of visuals, however, it’s a completely different story. Animation studio Animal Logic, best known for their work on the LEGO movies, render the talking animals with the right amount of realism to properly sell them as the real article, yet animated enough to make their English speech seem natural. Even without considering the horrors I’ve already seen this year when it comes to talking animals, this is impressive work and marks a decent milestone as far as Sony Pictures Animation is concerned.

The sense of humour on display, likewise, is an embarrassingly muddled affair. The main premise of an irate gardener going to war against the surrounding wildlife is the kind of scenario just begging for the Elmer Fudd treatment, and that is effectively what we get: A big, half-CGI Looney Tunes cartoon. To that end, the film can be quite fun, with the superb animation showing a real zeal for non-plastic kinetics that makes the slapstick really pop. Bonus points for how well it’s integrated with the live-action footage, making both the animals and the humans getting thrown and tossed around rather enjoyable. Part of me wonders if it needed to be quite this violent, since I’m fairly certain some of the jumps involving electricity would have normally killed the humans involved, but then again, we also get war parody moments once Thomas brings out the explosives; the weirdness evens it out after a while.

Humour in the dialogue? Not so much. Aside from deliberately invoking “stop explaining the joke”, and yet continuing to do so regardless, it seems like Gluck and co-writer Rob Lieber (Alexander And The Terrible Word Salad Of A Title) are only comfortable in short bursts. When it comes to time for running gags, things can get pretty dire. No, I didn’t care about the triplets arguing about who is the oldest the first time around, and I certainly don’t care for every time it got repeated after that. I also don’t care for how blunt Peter gets about his “character flaw”, a semi-recurring gag that only serves to highlight the writers’ laziness with characterisation. Even with cartoon logic, this would be the equivalent of Wile E. Coyote holding up a sign that says “I will never catch the Road Runner, and yet I keep chasing it because my ego refuses to let me accept that none of my gadgets ever work and that there are easier ways to get food than to risk my life in so many different ways”. If that bit of hard reality felt out of place to you, wait till we get to the most infamous part of the film.

It’s kind of impossible for me to look at this film in-depth and not address the scene involving food allergies that got everyone riled up when this first came out. Now, for the record, I don’t actually have a problem with the inclusion of the allergy on its own. With Thomas hell-bent on killing these animals, it makes sense that Peter would respond in kind and take advantage of the enemy’s weakness, here being an allergy to blackberries. Hell, it makes for the most grounded moment of the entire film, as Thomas’ allergic reaction is shown with startling realism as we see him inject an EpiPen right into his leg.

However, when put into context with the rest of the film, this sticks out like a sore thumb. When the rest of the film is as Tex Avery as it is, with most of the engagement coming out of sheer carnage, why would there suddenly be a moment that we have to take dead seriously? Pretty sure the film itself was aware of this problem, given Peter breaking the fourth wall when he first discovers the allergy and saying that he “hopes he doesn’t get any letters”. So, the film is aware enough to know that this might be a problematic scene… but not aware enough to actively question whether it was even a good idea. I’m not saying this because I think the film is trying to make fun of food allergies; the moment itself is treated too gingerly for that to be the case in my eyes. I’m saying this as someone who can’t help but think back on that one scene because of how unalike it is to everything around it. It’s a buzzkill, to put it lightly, and it sours a fair bit of the fun through sheer proximity.

All in all, this is all over the place in a lot of ways, to the point where I’m not even sure if I can say that I liked it overall. The acting is very good, with Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson ending up being far more interesting and endearing than the title character, the animation shows Animal Logic doing their meticulously-detailed thang, and the physical comedy is very well done. On the flipside, the soundtrack is quite dated in places and rather lacking in taste in others, the written humour is frequently draining, and as much as I don’t want to keep harping on about that one little allergic reaction moment, it is so jarring as to make me question why it is even here in the first place. I went into this with little to no knowledge about the original books, so mileage may vary on how serviceable this is, but with how confused and conflicted a lot of the production is, I’m gonna call this a fun but incredibly flawed family film. And yes, considering it managed to sneak in a surprisingly subtle weed joke and make it work, I still consider this to be a family film rather than one strictly for kids.

1 comment:

  1. You've picked up on a lot of things I wouldn't have even thought to consider or look at. I'm guessing it's perhaps not as good as the trailer made it look?