Bea, Thomas, and the rabbits have created a makeshift family, but despite his best efforts, Peter can’t seem to shake his mischievous reputation.
Slapstick, farmers’ market mockery and the benefits of a plant-based diet — Peter Rabbit 2 is the perfect blend of tradition and modern concerns. It certainly made me think about pet ownership and meat-eating: I can’t say I’ll never eat another rabbit but I can say I won’t eat another rabbit that can argue for its life as I chop the onions.
For some parents this farmers market slander may be a bunny hop too far. You’ll know if you’re in on the joke or being laughed at if you think the scene where the rabbits are given a choice of still or sparkling water in their bowls is funny or simply what you do at home.
This COVID-delayed sequel — like the first film, it’s directed by Will Gluck and has a mix of live action and CGI — has finally hopped into UK cinemas, bobtail twitching. Considerably better than Peter’s 2018 outing, it gets off to an excellent start, with a full-on fight at the garden wedding of Bea (Rose Byrne) and Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), which for many adult viewers will bring back fond memories of traditional nuptials pre-lockdown.
Bea’s self-published book about Peter Rabbit and his friends has become a big, if local, success; when persuasive publisher Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo) writes to her saying that he’d like to republish it more widely, they are soon on their way to Gloucester by train to meet him (a journey which will be familiar to many parents braving public transport with small children).
Nigel has big ideas for Bea’s later books, ideas that are very different from the charm of her pastoral vision. He’s a man who is hard to say no to, and against her better judgement she’s soon trying to give him what he wants. He’s already developed character posters of all the bunnies, positioning Benjamin as the wise one, and poor Peter as the Bad Seed. “Every story has only one good guy”, humblebrags Peter in an earlier scene where he’s lauded as the “face” of Bea’s book, but realisation dawns that every story also needs one bad guy, and it’s always him, even when he’s trying to be good. That he’s now immortalised in a book makes his past misdeeds and mistakes even harder to escape.
Already upset that Thomas always blames him first, he’s devastated by what he sees as more unfair treatment and runs off, meeting hardened thief Barnabas (Lennie James) who introduces him to fellow bad seeds Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers and Mittens. Together they face kidnapping and forced adoption before planning a massive heist, involving the aforementioned farmers’ market.
The film’s comic timing, aimed at children, is impeccable, and they will adore the slapstick humour. My 9 year old and I both loved the wack-a-rabbit sequence in a recycling bin, with Peter and partner-in-crime Barnabas popping up through the holes, slapped back down again by a postman and a greengrocer.
The minor characters have some of the best jokes: the cockerel, suffering a midlife existential crisis (happily rectified in the mid-credits scene); and Mr Tod the fox, who takes up jogging — “it’s running without a terrified animal in front of you,” Peter explains — in an effort to cope with a new life where he is no longer allowed to eat other wildlife. Mrs Tiggywinkle (Sia) proves herself to be a feisty and versatile character.
The pace drops slightly in the middle (as marked by my son’s restlessness) though the denouement, which sees Thomas and Peter rescuing their animal friends from various adopters, is clever and witty, with some now working as skydiving support pets and poor Jeremy Fisher nearly turning into a biology experiment.
The jokes aimed at adults avoid knowing irony for genuine humour; I loved the explanation that Germans don’t like butterflies because “they’re too whimsical”. The soundtrack will also appeal to parents of a certain age, the eclectic songs clearly chosen to literally explain the story to any bemused children: Alright by Supergrass, The Ting Tings’ That’s Not My Name and Boulevard Of Broken Dreams by Green Day.
Peter Rabbit 2 is about being working out who you want to be as part of a family with all the responsibility and support that comes with that, not just for Peter but for Bea, Thomas and the rest. Peter himself is an endearing hero for little ones. He’s gullible, assuming he’s wiser than he is. His bumptiousness and lack of thought mean he’s easily led, and while he’s brave he doesn’t realise what he’s getting into. It’s always been a great role for James Corden. He’s playing, if not himself, then the world’s opinion of him; there’s even a joke in the film that I’m sure is a dig at that reputation.
Beatrix Potter didn’t shy away from the perils and traumas animals suffer. Peter Rabbit 2 is only dark in a child-appealing bloodthirsty way (there’s a mention of Peter’s dad ending up in a pie, and Mr Tod’s diet “cheat day” involves him trying to kill a squirrel) but the troubles of growing up, and the acknowledgement that loving parents are flawed too, is there.
Children who feel unfairly blamed for misdemeanours in their family will certainly find a kindred spirit in the little blue-jacketed bunny. Lots of families have a scapegoat even if they claim not to, and Peter is a mischievous little boy who has become the go-to kid to blame for surrogate father Thomas.
Oyewolo is terrific as the (literally) mesmerising Nigel, a smooth talking marketing genius who sees his clients’ visions as more disposable than the rubbishy lunchboxes he’ll be printing their characters on. Only one of Peter’s sisters (I have no idea which one — Mopsy?) sees Nigel for what he is from the start. Everyone else is dazzled as he flatters and cajoles them down the road he wants to take them. Bunnies in space? No problem.
My failure to tell Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail apart is perhaps understandable (the twins are continually annoyed at being mixed up) but they and other characters are better characterised this time. The humans too are believable rather than cartoonish. Thomas’s quirks and annoyances don’t feel over the top and Gleeson and Byrne have lovely chemistry.
Just as colourful and visually engaging as the first film, Peter Rabbit 2 looks more real and more British, with trips to Gloucester (and indeed its famous tailor) — though a few more Lake District shots would not have gone amiss. Bea’s shop is in Windermere town with its grey slate houses, and we occasionally see a glimpse of lake, but considering how anchored Potter was in the area neither film has made much of that connection.
My son and his friends still adored Peter Rabbit 2, spontaneously applauding at the end. Only a scene at the wedding didn’t meet his approval: “The hardest part of the movie is them getting married because they have to kiss,” he declared with a theatrical shudder.
Note: there is a mid-credits scene, as mentioned above.
Read about the ending of Peter Rabbit 2 (no, not like that) here.
Watch the Peter Rabbit 2 trailer now: