Beginning in 1902, Beatrice Potter, an Englishwoman, wrote books about characters associated with and including Peter Rabbit. She also illustrated the books, which have become childhood classics.
Two years ago, Columbia/Sony gave us a film using some of her characters, with Peter having the voice of Englishman and late night TV talk-show host James Corden. The new live action and computer-generated animation hybrid movie, “Peter Rabbit 2,” is a lot like its predecessor. The merger of the two media is near perfect, the images are colorful, and the action is steady.
Aussie Rose Byrne and Irishman Domhnall Gleeson are joined in the live cast by Brit David Oyewolo, who plays a hype-preferring publisher. Among the voice actors are Aussies Elizabeth Debiki (as Mopsy) and Margot Robbie (as Topsy), who make an impression despite their few opportunities.
The story seems awfully 1968 self-aware. Beatrix has opened a shop in the village to sell her book about Peter and to sell associated goods. Think Harry Potter Pop-up Store. The rest of the movie depends on her foray into commercial life.
Which, of course, is ironic. The movie suggests that the charm of the stories is ruined by projection to billboard size. Meanwhile the movie is being projected on something the size and shape of a billboard.
The real truth about the plot, though, is that it is about mistakes Peter makes because he is conscious of what people think of him. We don’t spend that much time with Oyewolo trying to sell Bea on doing a sort of “Space Jam” version of Peter to capitalize on his popularity.
No. Most of the movie is spent following Peter. He hears Oyewolo characterizing him as “bad” and decides he is misunderstood. So he starts a willing association with city-dwelling animals who want to knock-over the dried fruits booth at the Gloucester farmer’s market.
By the time the movie gets around to showing how its evil is undone, there isn’t time to dramatize anything much. So we get this series of events in narrative short-hand.
Sound a little complicated for toddlers? One has to worry a little about who the movie, with its regular samples from recent soprano pop music, was made for. Are 10-year-olds still going to be willing to be entertained by rabbit characters?
Or is the movie pitched at Corden’s asexual sort of karaoke singers? There’s nothing wrong with adults enjoying what seem from the outside to be “children’s” entertainments. But our fascination with “young adult” book and movie series may have given us a fourth or fifth movie fan base.
One thing is sure about both “Peter Rabbit” and “Peter Rabbit 2” (subtitled “The Runaway”), though. It is the animation that makes them interesting. The original illustrations in the books have provided some details about the appearances of the characters and of some of the rural buildings.
But the motions of the characters and some of the city locations, for example, were produced fresh by artists sensitive to Potter’s tastes.
Then when the animated characters and the carefully-designed sets are seen together, the look is pretty much jaw-dropping. A stag parachuting is one thing. Put an animated badger in conversation with a live vegetable vendor and you’ve got something more arresting. Then if you get all the colors right, well, you’ve made something truly memorable.
Now. Can young kids who won’t feel self-conscious about rooting for a mischievous rabbit be able to follow the metafictional story? Perhaps they are used to not fully understanding everything they watch.