For this review, I’ve set the lofty goal of sailing through it without a single rabbit-related pun. It won’t be easy, but I like to reach for the stars. Anyway…I don’t know what the ceiling is for a comedy centered on the shenanigans of anthropomorphic bunnies, but Peter Rabbit 2 and its predecessor manage to bump against it. Silly and sweet-natured, this is the kind of movie that I would label as a romp–if I were a little dorkier, that is. Fans of the first film will enjoy this one every bit as much. Anyone else…well, don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
Based on the children’s beloved books by Beatrix Potter, Rabbit 2 kicks off a little after the events of the previous bunny epic. Kooky, starving artist Bea (Rose Byrne) has married mercurial Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), and the couple settles into the delightful country home he inherited from a distant, rabbit-hating relative. Thomas has made peace with Rose’s adopted bunny children, although he still harbors resentment toward Peter (voice of James Corden), the mischievous rabbit-ringleader.
Things get lively when Bea’s Peter Rabbit books draw the attention of Nigel (David Oyelowo), an obnoxiously pretentious publisher who wants to reconfigure her work for a mass audience. Specifically, Nigel envisions each of her bunny characters in easily-defined categories: Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) are the rascally twins who complete each other’s sentences. Cottontail (Aimee Horne) is the buttoned-down sibling, and Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) serves as the gang’s impressionable junior member. Most controversially, Nigel paints Peter as the bad boy who always steers the group directly into trouble.
Peter bristles at being labeled as a malcontent, and he storms out of Nigel’s pitch meeting. As he stalks the streets of London, Peter runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), the bunny equivalent of an Artful Dodger. Barnabas recounts how he knew Peter’s father, and how they dreamed up ways to nick food from doofus humans. He urges Peter to embrace his ornery nature and spurn any humans and rabbits who hold him back. This is a seductive pitch to Peter, who finally feels the freedom to be who he really is. (Side note: Find another review of either Peter Rabbit movie that uses the word seductive. I dare you.)
Just like that, Peter integrates himself into Barnabas’ squad of Dickensian street toughs. He quickly learns how to pick a pocket or two, and seems to enjoy this freewheeling life away from Thomas, Bea, and his siblings. Barnabas soon proposes the heist to end all heists: With Peter’s help, the gang plans to relieve a farmer’s market of all its veggies. In this dream scenario, Barnabas and his scuzzy ragamuffins would have all the grub they would ever need. It’s a tempting proposition, and it chucks ol’ Pete into a padawan’s dilemma. Does he fully commit to the dark side? Or, does he head back and live in a bucolic painting with his true family?
Most of that plot is just a curtain rod upon which to hang 100 minutes of self-aware gags and pop culture goofery. That means kids can giggle when a rabbit gets all jacked up on jellybeans, while adults are treated to full-on riffs of Guy Ritchie and James Bond-style action flicks. Some of the jokes get a little too cute for their own good, and the script occasionally veers off on maudlin tangents, but just about everything is perfectly pleasant and amusing.
As for the cast, Byrne and Gleeson are irresistibly charming. Even their squabbles are precious. Gleeson, in particular, presents a warm undercurrent of humanity beneath his high-strung, temperamental husband. It must also be noted that Gleeson has one of the best screams in recent cinematic history: When panicked, Thomas lets out a shrill Banshee squall that sounds absolutely magnificent in Dolby Surround.
It must be tricky to make good movies for kids, because the proof lies in how few of them succeed. Peter Rabbit 2 delivers just enough good-natured laughs and solid storytelling to please both young viewers and their parents. Maybe it goes a smidge over the top, and maybe it runs a few scenes too long. Still, as long as the film stays true to itself, I try not to split hares.
93 min. PG.