The quaint but sometimes perilous world inhabited by Peter Rabbit and fellow anthropomorphized furry and feathered creatures in Beatrix Potter’s suite of children’s tales is a storybook England of vegetable gardens and country lanes. By contemporary standards, it’s a wistful setting of simple pleasures, one lovingly captured on the written and illustrated page by its beloved author in 23 books with titles like The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. So why would anyone think that modernizing Potter’s mischievous leveret in this live-action movie adaptation populated with CGI critters faithfully outfitted in waistcoats and bonnets is anything but a harebrained idea? And for a second time at that? Once you tamper with the precious stuff that has endeared generations of young readers simply because you distrust the attention spans of today’s youngsters, what’s left over is a rabbit stew barely seasoned with warmed-over scraps of waggish whimsy.
This misbegotten sequel to 2018’s equally questionable Peter Rabbit begins on a particularly confusing note for any traditionalist familiar with the writer’s life and work. As the first scene opens, the never-married Miss Potter (Byrne), casually nicknamed “Bea” here, is saying “I do” to Mr. McGregor (an elastic-limbed Gleason), great-nephew of one of Potter's fictional creations and Peter’s archenemy, in a ceremony attended by Peter and other members of Potter’s literary menagerie. (Never mind that her books reference the original McGregor's presumable murder of Peter’s father.) As he watches the ceremony, an Oedipally incensed Peter starts to daydream about the animals’ violent disruption of the nuptials. The bloodless savagery of this attack fantasy is not only disturbing but immediately off-putting for anyone deluded enough to believe this updated misadventure might still offer a soupçon of Potteresque charm.
From there, the screenplay by director Gluck and Patrick Burleigh takes two paths. In the first, a slick big-time publisher (Oyelowo) attempts to convince Bea to reimagine the hares popularized in her self-published debut, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, with an urban edge, nudging her towards hardening the titular character into a bad-boy bunny, with a marketing eye towards lucrative action-figure and cereal-box merchandizing. In the second, a runaway Peter, disheartened at the prospect of becoming the villain of the piece, joins a Dickensian gang of mammalian food thieves led by a grizzled old buck named Barnabas in nearby Gloucester. The dual storylines ultimately lead to a frantic finale cribbed from a James Bond movie, with Bea behind the wheel of a convertible sportscar in a spectacular animal rescue effort that would shame PETA. Like the jelly-bean sugar high in one of the more manic running gags, it’s all terribly exhausting in the way most movies tailored to the under-10 crowd can be.
While a handful of gags hit their marks (one of the best: a public trash and recycling bin whose holes are tailor-made for a futile game of Whack-a-Rabbit during a chase sequence), the movie devotes much of its humor in self-referential justification of itself. In fact, it winks so incessantly at the audience, particularly in the storyline in which Bea is tempted to update Peter’s tale with a more contemporary vibe (rabbits in outer space!), that at some point the inside jokes start to sound like an apology from the filmmakers for stooping to bastardize a children’s classic. If Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway tells us anything, it’s that meta ain’t always betta.
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