Peter Rabbit 2 wishes it were a Paddington film. It isn’t.
It’s fair to say Will Gluck’s Peter Rabbit 2 wants a piece of the Paddington pie. Gluck’s film certainly shares plenty with those cultishly adored bear movies, being films about CGI animals sharing living space with British families and interacting with casts of seemingly overqualified actors, but the comparison does the Rabbit no favors. For one thing, those overqualified actors aren’t exactly given the same material in each franchise. In the Paddington films, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant delight in a good deal of villainous scenery chewing, while the Peter Rabbit movies pair Margot Robbie and Elizabeth Debicki as the voices of boring CGI bunnies. Maybe it’s to be expected, then, that no one is bringing their A-game here, and while Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson don’t condescend to the material, they’re clearly not inspired enough to do any elevating. The exception, of course, is Peter Rabbit himself, James Corden, who meets expectations by not being very good at all. But what separates this bunny from Paddington Bear most of all is that he’s a jerk.
At least, that’s what he’s been told all his life. When a publisher (David Oyelowo, punching well below his weight class) pushes the idea of Peter as a Bad Seed onto new author Bea (Byrne), who has written a children’s book about her rabbits, Thomas (Gleeson) is too quick to agree, leading Peter to run away, feeling unappreciated and misunderstood. And while much of what Thomas McGregor thinks of Peter is based more in miscommunication and personality clashes than in the rabbit really misbehaving, it’s hard to be on Peter’s side when he’s so unlikeable and uninteresting. Outside of his love of the spotlight and predilection towards obnoxious bits, there’s not much of a character there (it’s like Corden is once again playing himself, but this time in bunny form), so it makes sense that he has to run away to find himself. He won’t find much more dimensionality though as he mostly just falls in with a group of thieves and ultimately helps plan a heist, all the while the (barely concerned) humans struggle with concepts like artistic integrity, as the publisher tries to push his too hip vision onto Bea. The heist, which is more of a smash and grab than anything requiring intricate planning, will go wrong and the publisher will get told off, but getting there is a miserable slog that barely justifies the film’s meager 84 minutes.
Paddington’s popularity owes much to the main character’s niceness, but also stems from a level of aesthetic care not usually seen in mainstream children’s filmmaking. Sure, much of what’s on screen in either of those films is cribbed liberally from better, iconic filmmakers, but there’s a sense of control and craft in the setpieces, action-heavy and comedic, that sets them apart from stuff like Peter Rabbit 2. This is a film wholly without wit, visual or otherwise, in which the boring, unfunny jokes are trickled out slowly and the exciting parts promised by the second act are lifelessly marched through in third act procession. There might not be a single moment of genuine fun in the whole film, though in fairness, a sketch of a rabbit wearing a shirt that says “Hype Beast” may elicit an undeserved giggle. So while Peter Rabbit 2 might aspire to be Paddington’s hard-edged cousin, it hardly rises above a dust-covered, bargain-bin knockoff.