Review – It’s Wabbit Season! (“Peter Rabbit”)

This ain’t yo mama’s Peter Rabbit, that’s for sure. Based on the 1902 children’s book by Beatrix Potter, Sony Animation, which brought you The Smurfs, Hotel Transylvania, and Surf’s Up, have done something unusual: made a CGI version of the book that’s actually very funny and not as dumbed-down as you might think! Who’da thunk? 

Welcome to a universe of anthropomorphic rabbits, hedgehogs, pigs, roosters, and singing, choreographed birds. Way out in the beautiful English countryside we meet the rascally and adventurous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden), his needy cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), and his always bickering triplet sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley). Their days are spent mostly stealing vegetables from old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill in heavy make-up) and trying NOT to get caught. While McGregor hates their tiny little guts, the rabbits are loved by next door neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), who spends her time painting either wild abstracts or whimsical rabbit illustrations, like the ones in the Beatrix Potter’s books.

But after the elder McGregor dies, his only heir comes out to claim the home and adjacent garden, and this guy is a piece of work. The rabbits soon learn that young Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) is a fastidious, OCD-crazed control freak who only wants to sell the farm so he can “buy a toy shop next door to Harrod’s and destroy them!”. Bent on keeping “their” garden, Peter employs every Home Alone tactic to drive the intruder off his land, with the help of his floppy-eared kin. Naturally, as soon as Thomas meets Bea, sparks fly, and a power struggle ensues with Peter launching into a full-scale attack on Thomas in some of the film’s funniest moments.

Things escalate quickly as the ‘war’ goes south quickly, leaving Bea and Thomas both physically and emotionally damaged. Peter, ever the leader and mischief-maker, is determined to make everything okay in a third act that is not only clichéd, but knows that it’s clichéd and makes fun of it! In fact, the whole movie has a glorious time pointing out the standard movie tropes that you usually see in films, and then making a joke about it! You don’t see that in your run-of-the-mill kids comedy movie.

This out-of-the-ordinary script by Rob Lieber (the Goldbergs TV series) and director Will Gluck (Friends With Benefits) is chock-full of craziness for the kids and, if you’re a fan of British humor like me, terrific throw-away lines for the adults. Gluck’s lightning fast direction zips along at a dizzying pace, so fast that you miss alot of sight gags. The fact that Bea and Thomas are delightfully oblivious to clothes-wearing, human-acting animals all around them while they’re pulling off an Animal Farm-ish take-over, is hilarious. They even mention this fact and are okay with it!

You can tell that Bryne is having a fun time acting against a bunch of CG bunnies which, BTW, look extraordinarily good. But it’s Gleeson that really pulls out all the stops. Seeing him in this role as a lanky, inept, goofball instead of his nasty and evil General Hux in the Star Wars sagas, is something of shock. Who knew he could do broad goofy shtick, deadpan British humor, and silly pratfalls with such impeccable comedic timing? Hmmmm… I wonder if Supreme Leader Snoak knows about this? This is the same kind of ‘magical’ feel you get with Nanny McPhee or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

The script’s ‘winking-at-the-audience’ goes on throughout the film, even with a recent controversial scene which has caused quite an internet buzz: Thomas is allergic to blackberries and goes into anaphylactic shock which, a few scenes earlier, Peter had looked at the camera and pleaded the viewer not to write angry letters about them making a joke about allergies. Rather prophetic, huh? Still, aside from that hiccup, the movie is fast-paced, very funny, and loaded with sight gags, one-liners, and has a sweetness hidden inside that pops out every now and then to make you feel all gushy. Oh, and check out the awestruck rooster whose ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’s’ are just bewildering.

Watership Down (1978)

Based on Richard Adams novel, this adult animated look at a complex society of rabbits and their harrowing search for a new home, is brought to life in a richly woven tapestry of muted colors, pastels, and blood. Believe me, this ain’t no Disney cartoon you wanna have your little ones watch!
Before we get into the story, you’re given a quick history lesson about rabbits and their god, Frith, who created the world and gave special gifts to every animal. Some animals he made predators to prey upon the rabbits, but gave each rabbit speed and cunning to compensate. Well, that was nice! Now that we know that, we go to a quiet English countryside where a psychic rabbit named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) has an apocalyptic vision. His older brother Hazel (John Hurt) begs the Chief to evacuate the warren (an underground home), but he’s dismissed. Hazel gathers the others and they fight to escape, leaving Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver, and Violet the only ones alive.
Traveling to the woods, Violet is killed by a hawk, leaving the group without a female. Along the way they meet the curious Cowslip (Denholm Elliot) who invites them to his warren, but it turns out to be a trap. On the run again, they discover Nuthanger farm, which contains many caged female rabbits! However, they can’t free them due to the dogs and cats on the farm. Fiver has a vision and leads the group up a steep hill (called Watership Down), where the rabbits settle in, naming Hazel as their chief. Befriending a rather testy seagull called Kehaar (Zero Mostel), they have him search for a warren full of females and strike gold. Problem is, the place is a fortress run by a ruthless bunny called General Woundwort (Harry Andrews).
Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) infiltrates the enemy warren and is made an officer; his secret plan is to sneak the females out and to their hilltop paradise. But just as Bigwig’s plans for a jailbreak are about to come to fruition, Fiver gets another premonition, and it ain’t a good one. Rabbits are chased, dogs are hunting them, seagulls are squawking out warnings, and many will die before the day is through. A kiddie story, this is not.
Director Martin Rosen adapted the novel with care and even went on to adapt the book to a lucrative 39-episode British TV series, without all the blood and violence. In fact, John Hurt and Richard Briers from the movie, lent their voices to the project. The animation isn’t your typical Saturday morning cartoon fare, nor is it anime-style, but more high-end, fluid and hand-drawn charcoal pencil drawings with splashes of watercolor. It’s just beautiful to watch and has the epic voice-over talent to match.
The story isn’t cheesy or dumbed-down for kids, and no jokes or silliness going on with a ridiculous ‘life-lesson’ thrown in for… reasons. What you DO get is a powerful, meaty tale of family, survival, honesty amongst each other, and gritty adventure that is usually reserved for more hardened dramas with humans. Watching this movie you forget that these are rabbits struggling for their lives every day. Worth the rent!   

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