The kids whooped and hollered in gleeful approval of director Will Gluck's adaptation of Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit." This even included the 10-to-12 contingent, usually too sophisticated to admit endorsement of an entertainment that might indict them of liking "baby stuff." And while the littler ones among the audience of fully engaged firstnighters whose space I recently invaded brought fingernails to lips whenever the title character risked cottontail and whiskers for ill-gotten vegetation, they, too, were otherwise charmed.
I was heartened by several insights, not the least of which was the erudition evinced by these young moviegoers to grasp the rather heady script Gluck and co-screenwriter Rob Lieber reverently fashioned from Potter's time-honored classic. But the most satisfying takeaway shouldn't have come as a surprise. Judging by the alternate cheering and jeering in reflection of this animated adventure yarn that at its heart is a morality tale, I was gladdened by the apparently uncorrupted devotion to truth and ethics. It gave me hope for the future they might demand.
However, lest I give the false impression that this beautifully filmed mix of animation and blue-screen magic is one part Hammurabi, two parts Solomon the Wise and several smidgens of Descartes, note that there's plenty that'd win the Marx Brothers' approval, too. While neatly enveloped by a love story about two humans who argue over the civil and property rights of the rabbits who lay claim to the rich bounty produced in mean Mr. McGregor's garden, this is a pretty wild, revolution-tinged free-for- all, with lots of action between smart meditations.
Interspersing the cutting-edge, filmic sorcery, reproductions of the original art work pleasantly temper Gluck's contemporization of the source material. This is where the battle line will be drawn, with purists saying the work should be presented unadulterated. So call me a Philistine.
But I feel the same as I do about restomods, those classic cars that have been retrofitted with modern brakes, engines and A/C, making them functional in today's world. Of course it still behooves us to preserve examples of the original, whether in museums or private collection.
Continuing my argument, the analogous museum would be parents reading the bona fide Beatrix Potter to children at story time, while concurrently elucidating that the translation to cinema brings with it all the demands Marshall McLuhan said would intervene. It's quicker, faster, jibing with the apparent evolution of comprehension wrought by a digital insurgency that multitasks like nobody's business. The in-home tutorial in comparative mediums might even help put the kid to sleep.
In short, our analysis of how today's purveyors of Kiddie Lit and its silver-screen spinoffs try to discern what children will find entertaining is in itself a valuable barometer of the times in which we live. Like the man said, "Out of the mouths of babes." Indeed, unvarnished young minds as yet uncompromised by the company line perceive truths and fallacies with stunning result. And like us, they enjoy seeing their impressions of the world corroborated in picture and word.
But putting all this bombastic, faux intellectualism aside, "Peter Rabbit" is a real hoot. So much so, in fact, that you may not want to pawn off moviegoing duties to Pop-Pop and Nanny in this episode of little Beau and Epiphany's pilgrimage to the Bijou. Auteur Gluck manages that rare feat in that he has fashioned a film that adults will like not just because the ragamuffins enjoy it while learning a lesson or two, but because it is witty on a grownup level as well. Plus, experiencing that smart 12-year-old of yours digging the hip satire is worth its weight in gold.
Anchoring the harebrained hijinks, intermeshing the human perspective with the lapin point of view, is the sweet love story, replete with a primer on compromise, sensitivity and the joyful woes attendant to the battle of the sexes. Inheriting the plant-rich McGregor estate after Old Man McGregor exits the picture under humorously dark circumstances, prim and decidedly OCD'ish Thomas McGregor, amusingly played by Domhnall Gleeson, has plans to cash in and open a toy shop in London. But what he didn't plan on is told in my next paragraph.
While love is generally welcome whether it hits you in the eye like a big pizza pie or is carefully arranged by Dolly Levi, I'm partial to the serendipity sort — neither party consciously looking for their emotional corruption and downfall, and mercilessly swept off their feet. It is thus obliging that living next door to where young McGregor will assume the family tradition of victimization by diabolical bunnies, is comely animal activist/artist and defender of rabbits, Bea, winsomely played by Rose Byrne. The typical but nonetheless whimsical courtship that ensues is the crowning touch that makes "Peter Rabbit" a 24-carrot affair.
"Peter Rabbit," rated PG, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Will Gluck and stars James Corden (voice), Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne. Running time: 93 minutes
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