Burrowing dozens of storytelling holes which never get filled, “Peter Rabbit” feels simultaneously like a movie that was way too short and far too long, speaking often without ever quite saying what it needed. But it’s hard to deny this movie has a propensity for pure joy, chucking at us morsels of sly British humor, bursts of jokes that get stuck in our teeth and rarely fail to make us smile.
Carrying in the new tradition of the wonderful “Paddington” movies, “Peter Rabbit” is a CGI storybook film, where delicately crafted computer animals pal around with real-life humans. That concept’s been done countless times before, even more so when you expand to non-CGI animated films. But “Peter Rabbit” feels different for being so advanced with its technology that we’re no longer highly aware of the CGI disbelief. Sure, we know this isn’t really happening, but we’re able to drift into this movie’s blend of live action and digitally-animated osmosis quite like any other animated movie before it.
That technological progress doesn’t save “Peter Rabbit’s” story faults, though. We follow Peter Rabbit, played by James Corden with his standard amount of witty charm and cheek-pinchiness. Peter lives in the tranquil English countryside with other rabbit siblings and near Bea, a lovely young woman played by Rose Byrne. After a young man (Domhnall Gleeson) from London takes over his dead relative’s old home, Peter finds himself in cahoots trying to kick the new tenant out and still keep access to the house’s decorated vegetable garden. And when the young man and Bea strike up a romance, Peter displays jealous behavior and attempts to thwart the relationship.
If that sounds like a jumbled mess of character needs and motivations, it is. The middle bulk of the film is a particular bore since we don’t really understand why anyone is doing anything, humans and animals included. In these instances, the movie’s jokes feel like a worn band-aid to cover its bad script, an imitation of the quirky, meta, awkward, sanctimonious humor that really defined the beginning and the end of the film. Here “Peter Rabbit” doesn’t feel so much like a movie but a series of CGI-animated shorts, haphazardly strung together into a full length feature.
When we do get through that tunnel to the final act, “Peter Rabbit rediscovers its early magic and brings us back home. We get Dave Matthews references, birds singing rap songs, all feeling like a “Monty Python” sketch tossed in with a “South Park” episode. Not all the jokes land, it’s guaranteed you’ll give at least half-a-dozen eye rolls in this movie. But when these CGI creatures do something truly funny in “Peter Rabbit,” your laughs will be far from artificial.