The new Peter Rabbit film is here – as before directed and co-written by Will Gluck and the hero cheekily voiced by James Corden – presenting a U-certificate entertainment that shows rabbits wisecracking and getting up to larks but thankfully uninterested in breeding or sexual congress of any sort.
Beatrix Potter’s creation has returned for a movie sequel that combines live-action humans and CGI bunnies whose co-existence on camera is seamlessly achieved as before in that bright, flat, bland light, as if the screen has been laminated. Some of the story takes place in the picturesque town of Gloucester rather than the Lake District; naturally, we were all hoping Peter Rabbit 2 would show Peter Rabbit’s dad as a young man in the old country, a bandit in the countryside, interspersed with scenes showing his grownup son becoming increasingly ruthless as he embraces his violent destiny in the stolen carrot business.
But no. The scenario now is that the author, Bea (Rose Byrne) is now happily married to the once-feared Thomas McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson with oddly darkened hair and eyebrows) and they are running an olde gifte shoppe, selling Bea’s books about about Peter Rabbit and his pals, artisanally self-published by Thomas. Peter hangs out at their cottage with the gang: Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Benjamin (Colin Moody) and Cottontail (Aimee Horne) – and they’re allowed to take stuff from the garden, within reason, although Thomas has a yen to sell his tomatoes at the farmers’ market in Gloucester.
The situation becomes tense when Bea is asked to come to London by smoothie publisher Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo); he treats Bea, Thomas and their rabbits to a train ride to town in an exotically imagined first-class compartment that looks like the Orient Express. But of course heartless Basil-Jones is only interested in turning her books into a soulless commercialised travesty – and so the movie keeps pre-emptively tipping us the wink that it’s not bothered about some people thinking that this is what’s happening with this growing film franchise. There’s a fair bit of meta-joking about how these films are being marketed: Peter even calls a torch a “flashlight” but then knowingly calls it a “torch” – “for our British friends”.
Peter gets upset with how mean and cross Thomas can be with him and how he’s being misrepresented in Bea’s books, so he falls in with a bad rabbit – old rogue Barnabas (Lennie James) – who becomes an ersatz father figure to lonely Peter. He becomes a runaway, pursuing a life of crime with Barnabas and his dodgy new crew of reprobates.
There are one or two nice gags, especially from Barnabas who, while burgling the houses of middle-class humans, notes how they always have a bottle of champagne in the fridge for a celebration that is never going to happen, and always put healthy, boring uneatable food in the kids’ school lunch boxes “so the teachers won’t judge them”. And there’s a nice line about the absurdly expensive gifts on sale in farmers’ markets. But basically the humour is wacky slapstick stuff pitched at very young kids.
Unlike Paddington, whose literary source material is genuinely funny, this digital Peter Rabbit is never really humorous. It can sometimes be cute or zany and briefly send itself up, but there is fundamentally something pretty straight in its DNA. And so the film rattles inoffensively on, every line and every image seeming as if it has been test marketed in ways advocated by the wicked Nigel Basil-Jones. Supergrass’s all-purpose feelgood-montage track Alright is extensively used. I was hoping for something by Chas and Dave.
• Peter Rabbit 2 is released on 17 May in cinemas.