Sony Pictures Animation dropping Peter Rabbit on all our heads is more or less akin to Troma putting out Birdman. Or maybe that’s unfair since Troma has produced a steady stream of fun releases to counter its endless river of schlock over the years. Zack Snyder directing Spider-Man 2, maybe? Nickelback putting out “Daydream Nation”? I’m struggling for a more apt comparison, so I’ll just throw some facts at you. Sony Animation sucks. And Peter Rabbit is fantastic. We are through the looking glass.
Specifically, what the film has in common with those other works is that it creates something completely original by exploding its nonstop rush of both subtle and overt influences into a surprisingly coherent and (mostly?) palatable for kids project. That it gets as many kicks out of its characters constantly trying to murder each other Looney Tunes-style as it does by first acquainting us with Peter’s nemesis, Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, doing his best Vampire’s Kiss impression), in the middle of a spot-on parody of a Wes Anderson character intro montage is just a bonus. And how long has this movie been in production? Because either there’s a pretty hilarious homage to Lady Bird in there, or this is the most random and eeriest case of creative synchronicity since The Matrix, eXistenZ, and The 13th Floor all came out in 1999.
Peter Rabbit starts off on a note of bizarro goofiness and works itself into such a frenzy over the course of its 93 minutes that the closest direct comparison would probably be Gremlins 2. It really is something to see just how far the film is willing to go in service of its vision of total and unrelenting absurdity. It also earns points, like last year’s Nut Job 2, by coming out hard as being anti-musical, its quartet of cute little singing birds being run over or knocked out of the sky mid-song about every fifteen minutes or so.
The downside is that Rose Byrne gets nothing to do as the caring but put-upon love interest to Mr. McGregor while being friend and champion of Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton Tail, and Benjamin. Sure, she’s named Bea and paints beautiful watercolor portraits of her charges, but that’s about all we get. Thankfully the rest of the cast bounces off and bangs around the frame to such a degree that this isn’t the derailing issue it otherwise could’ve been. It’s a live-action cartoon in the best sense of the term, so fully-realized, three-dimensional characters might never have been on the table. That Peter Rabbit delivers the arcs that it does is impressive enough.
Honestly, this so easily could’ve been just another lazy knock-off custom-built for short attention spans that the adults in the audience could nap through. What we got instead is some truly enthusiastic filmmaking that aims for outlandish, soars past that goal again and again, then still manages a sweet, gentle landing. This is the first children’s film I’ve reviewed that I can’t wait to see again.