Modern and mischievous 'Peter Rabbit' has unexpected charm

Posted February 6, 2018 4:39 p.m. EST

The previews for ``Peter Rabbit'' were a chopped salad of juvenile slapstick, pop music and sudden loud noises -- as distant from Beatrix Potter's lovely ``The Tale of Peter Rabbit'' as an English country garden in a Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre.

So what a pleasant surprise that the actual movie pairs its modern makeover with some unexpected charm. Yes, the two-minute trailers were an atrocious affront. But it turns out the other 91 minutes include thoughtful characters and some clever humor in between the pratfalls.

Let us first stipulate that Potter, who died in 1943, would have hated this movie. ``Tale of Peter Rabbit'' purists should stay away as well. Whatever nice things are written in the next nine paragraphs, never forget this is a film where Peter Rabbit contemplates sticking a carrot in Mr. McGregor's butt.

But if you're mandated to update early 20th Century children's literature for short-attention-spanned 2018 audiences, ``Peter Rabbit'' is a pretty good template. The Sony Pictures Animation film is clever. It has a brisk pace. And the physical comedy, involving live action and animated characters, is well-executed.

The title character is voiced by James Corden, who plays Peter Rabbit as less of a confused bunny who gets into mischief, and more of a Captain Jack Sparrow-type rabble-rouser, organizing complicated raids on old Farmer McGregor's garden.

When tragedy strikes McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill), his nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) moves from London to prepare the farm for sale. Thomas is a workaholic, but rabbit-loving neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne) brings out his kinder side. Peter and Thomas develop a rivalry with Bea in the middle, escalating their attacks against each other to Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner extremes.

The escalation is the key here. A lesser ``Alvin and the Chipmunks'' sequel might throw in one electrocution scene or a single tomato in the groin for a disposable laugh. In ``Peter Rabbit,'' these scenarios build to symphonic crescendos, with callbacks and turnarounds and other surprises.

Writer-director Will Gluck keeps the comedic sensibilities of a 9-year-old in mind throughout the film, never letting anyone walk too far without getting a rake to the head. And yet there's an underlying respect for honest human connection, and the value of getting back to nature.

Gleeson is particularly solid, displaying the same self-satisfied yet vulnerable comic beats that have worked in the latest ``Star Wars'' movies, where he plays General Hux. Thomas is introduced in a scene teaching his underlings how to clean a toilet -- a drinking straw is involved -- that showcases his ability to lean in to the bathroom humor. If there's a Hall of Fame for live action actors excelling in communication with animated counterparts, Gleeson is in the conversation with the Bob Hoskins/``Roger Rabbit,'' Michael Jordan/``Space Jam'' and Don Knotts ``The Incredible Mr. Limpet'' holy trinity.

Other parts of the movie don't work. The pop music soundtrack seems to be always turned to 11. Gluck and co-writer Rob Lieber don't seem to know what to do with sister rabbits Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, too often dropping a smart-ass remark about safe space or a character not wearing pants. The Mr. McGregor/carrot/butt scene is slightly less horrible than it sounds ... but only slightly.

And yet there's respect for adults in the audience as well, with bright writing for the human characters, and a Corden voice performance that feels warm and spontaneous. And when the last stick of dynamite goes off, and the last human is electrocuted, it's hard not to walk away thinking ``that movie was so much better than I expected.''

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic.

Peter Rabbit

3 stars out of 4 stars Animated comedy. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne and the voice of James Corden. (PG. 93 minutes.)