The original Peter Rabbit movie was a mild surprise for me. I watched it at about 3 a.m. in preparation for my podcast episode on Domhnall Gleeson and it had enough fun, chuckles, and shenanigans to keep me awake. This gave me enough hope that the film’s sequel, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway would be a good enough time for me to go to the theater and kill 90 minutes while watching one of my favorite actors (Gleeson). And it was. But the film’s ultimate message was extremely cynical, which took away any value it might have held.
Peter Rabbit 2 starts off with Thomas (Gleeson) and Bea’s (Rose Byrne) wedding which, in classic slapstick children’s movie style, also shows that Peter Rabbit himself is still causing lots of problems around the countryside manner. Thomas never trusts that Peter has good intentions and is constantly skeptical of his actions. Bea has also written books about Peter and his rabbit friends, and the books have gained a bit of popularity. So she is approached by Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), a publisher whose eyes are full of dollar signs and visions of dozens of sequels.
To start with the few positives, the acting in this movie is fun and humorous from both the live action actors and the voice actors (minus one notable exception who I’ll touch on later). Gleeson, Byrne, and Oyelowo seem perfectly happy to spend a few weeks saying and doing silly things while collecting fat paychecks. More power to them.
A lot of the physical, slapstick comedy works as well as you could expect from a kid’s movie and it seemed to have a positive effect on two of the young children sitting in my screening. On the way out of the theater, I heard one of them say, “That movie was so good! I just couldn’t stop watching it!” Even though the evidence of him and his friend walking around the theater, not being able to sit still, and taking multiple bathroom breaks seemed to suggest otherwise, I took the sentiment to be a glowing review of the movie from the seven-year-old at whom it was aimed. There was also a recurring gag about a rooster who believes it’s his responsibility to make the sun (or, the ball of fire in the sky, as he calls it) come up every morning that works well, but I won’t spoil the punchline.
So while this movie’s humor and basic storyline are at the very least serviceable for a children’s film, and on the scale of “falling asleep” to “fully engaged,” I landed on “repeatedly checked the time,” its ultimate, utter cynicism leaves me unable to recommend the movie at all.
The publisher urges Bea to expand her books. He wants the books, which start as simple stories of the rabbits in the garden learning simple lessons about friendship or thankfulness, to be more appealing to children. The rabbits could go to space! They could could go on wild, action-filled adventures! They should dress in modern day clothing, play ukuleles, and go to the beach! Bea starts off by staunchly saying she won’t go away from the heart of what makes her books so good, but then recognizes the allure of the financial success that will go along with broadening the stories’ reach.
There is so much talk and discussion about staying true to the heart of what makes a story special and not letting the desire for money overtake what is really important in storytelling and in life. But the irony is that the movie itself is cashing in on an unexpected phenomenon. The original 2018 movie made over $350 million on a $50 million budget, and there are a few throwaway jokes about how the characters weren’t expecting to be back. But thanks to the success of the original, here they are. It all just leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Writer and director Will Gluck made the first movie and seems to only be here the second time around for the paycheck. And on a $45 million budget for this one that’s already raked in over $70 million in less than a week, it seems like they’re well on their way to a third installment.
James Corden, the voice of Peter and the face you see everywhere because he can’t not insert himself (I’m looking at you, Friends reunion), is completely forgettable and just as cynical as the movie itself. Ben Schwartz with Sonic and Ben Whishaw with Paddington have shown bigger name stars can do well voicing CGI characters in live action movies. But Corden only sounds like he’s here to, again, collect a paycheck while having no fun. There are multiple times throughout Peter Rabbit 2 that Peter asks if his voice and personality are annoying. I just want to say, yes. Yes, they are.