It turns out I’ve been pronouncing radicchio wrong my whole life! Since the 90s anyway, when I realised there was a plant called radicchio. (In my defence, I didn’t eat an avocado til 1987.)
This live action/CGI Peter Rabbit is only loosely based on the original – as my 8 year old said authoritatively, “it’s a sequel to the book”, which makes more sense.
They’ve certainly tried to drag Peter hopping and squeaking into the modern age, though I’m not sure they needed to. And it’s unnecessarily sneery about the kind of whimsical adaptation they think you might have been expecting.
For Beatrix Potter wasn’t exactly known for sentimentality. As a writer she was nothing if not realistic about the brutal realities for country animals (in a fantastical way obviously – while Cumbrians might say they invented sticky toffee pudding, they shy away from claiming that filo-feline delicacy created when Tom Kitten gets made into a pudding in The Tale Of Samuel Whiskers).
Sure, this time there are explosions; a home invasion; and probably hoes too, hidden in the shed. But to me Peter Rabbit has always been the John Wick of Derwentwater, stealing radishes to avenge his father’s pastry-related passing.
In fact when McGregor Jnr throws poor Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) into a sack, I half-expected Peter (James Corden) to call him up with a menacing “I will find you…” in the manner of Liam Neeson in Taken.
Living next door to Mr McGregor is kind-hearted Bea (a determinedly sweet-natured Rose Byrne). Bea paints terrible abstract pictures while dismissing her own beautiful animal watercolours. When she’s not on her bicycle in a hat, she’s gently reproaching her neighbours over their attitudes to nature.
Old McGregor (an unrecognisable Sam Neill) doesn’t last long, succumbing to an allotment heart attack. Which leaves the animals free to take back the house and vegetable garden, partying in a five-a-day orgy (of vegetables, obviously).
It was wonderful hearing those childhood names: Pigling Bland (poshly voiced by Ewen Leslie, last seen as a thuggish farmer in Sweet Country); Jemima Puddle-Duck; Brock the badger; and Mr Tod the fox.
In fact so many anthropomorphic superstars pop up, it starts to resemble an animal version of the Avengers: Infinity War trailer and I’m now awaiting the Beatrix Potter Universe.
But can Peter – despite his joy as his nemesis is taken away in “the ice cream truck, with the flashing lights” – survive on his own? Maybe he needs an opponent?
Luckily while the animals are reclaiming what’s theirs, in London great-nephew Thomas McGregor is discovering he’s been left the house.
Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, so like a young Richard E Grant, seeing him in the Lake District reminded me I still haven’t written up my Withnail And I review from 1987) is exceedingly pernickety.
A lover of neatness and cleanliness, he excels in his job at Harrods, whether setting up toy displays or polishing the sparkling shop toilets; a love of order I can appreciate, though even I’d draw the line at drinking loo water through a straw (I’ll admit I can’t vouch for my two boys on that one).
He doesn’t want the house. He wants a promotion, only to see it given to his colleague Bannerman purely on the basis of nepotism. (Let’s leave aside for now whether inheriting wealth from a relative you’ve never met is better than inheriting a position at work. In fact we’ll leave it aside forever, as Peter Rabbit is a kids’ movie, despite social commentary on the ills of enclosure after McGregor stole the animals’ land for his allotment.)
After an altercation with Bannerman, Thomas is out, so he heads north to smarten up his new property for sale. It certainly needs a clean-up after the party animals’ takeover, though the mess is less beer cans and cigarette ends and more carrot tops and turnips.
The animals – and Bea – hope that Mini McGregor’s arrival will herald a return to the natural order of things; instead he’s mending gates and fixing walls. He even attempts murder, smearing an electrified fence with peanut butter, a treat Mrs Tiggywinkle (“I’m four and a half and I need some excitement in my life!”) can’t ignore.
But he’s up against nature, and nature will find a way (who knew a 25-year-old Jurassic Park quote would turn out to be the most accurate response to Man’s hubris?)
Despite Thomas’s loathing of the bunny bogeymen, he and Bea are clearly attracted. But how will it end? Can Thomas learn to live with Bea’s floppy-eared friends in peace? Or will Bea appear on Great British Bake Off with a signature dish of rabbit pie and peas?
There are nods to Peter’s origins. The flashbacks, animated to look like the book’s drawings, are a sweet touch; as are Bea’s animal portraits, painted in the same style.
The opening sequence is a joy, as Peter leaps along dry stone walls, along country lanes, past Potter favourites including Jeremy Fisher, perched on a lily pad. Thomas’s flowerpot showdown, lifting one after the other to try to find the hidden rabbits, as they move themselves along the table when he isn’t looking, is fabulously frustrating.
The bunny banter could be stronger, though I loved the “deer in the headlights” running gag. And there’s a suitably boisterous soundtrack interspersing Steal My Sunshine and I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), with a rap about celery.
Peter is good-hearted but thoughtless. Brash and bumptious, he claims hero status while others do the boring work – James Corden is very good, and that’s not a backhanded compliment.
Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley) are delightful, engagingly argumentative in their sibling rivalry. Any girl with two sisters (me) will appreciate their pecking order disputes. Benjamin Bunny barely registers.
Peter Rabbit was filmed mostly in Australia (a few characters, including Bea, fall into Australian accents), with some Lake District scenes. Though whoever decided Thomas could be in Windermere so soon after leaving London on a motorcycle hasn’t been on the M6.
Thanks to the Australia shoot, we get Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown voicing Peter’s late parents; a couple I’ve loved since they met on The Thorn Birds (Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, not Peter Rabbit’s parents).
My children loved the film, particularly the food fights, in their eyes the only sensible use for vegetables (and let’s not forget how bloodthirsty they can be; my 8 year old’s favourite bit was “when Mr McGregor got killed”).
It certainly looks lovely, but the plot is thinner than one of Mr McGregor’s onion skins. It needs, dare I say it, more lean meat.