The bunnies are fluffy, the produce is bountiful, and the antics are consistently lively in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” And yet it’s hard to escape the feeling that Will Gluck’s follow-up to 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” is straining to capture the fast-paced, meta whimsy of the original while also cramming in a whole bunch of new characters and themes. The result feels bogged down, albeit with sporadic moments of playful inspiration.
This live-action, CG-animated adventure once again looks spectacular, though, with the high-tech, talking creatures integrated seamlessly into the film’s twee English location. You truly feel as if you could reach out and touch Peter’s furry head and give him a little pet—if you’d want to, that is. The script from director Gluck and Patrick Burleigh, inspired by the beloved Beatrix Potter children’s book series, pushes Peter’s impishness into territory that’s more obnoxious, supposedly for the purpose of learning life lessons about … not selling out?
That’s one of the troubling through-lines here: an awareness of commercializing these characters by taking them from their traditional, quiet setting and placing them in a zanier, contemporary one while also making fun of that choice. Rose Byrne’s character—named Bea, in case you couldn’t figure out the connection—is now the author of a sweet, illustrated book about Peter and his animal friends, with plans for a 23-book series, the same number Potter produced. As Bea finds herself succumbing to the thrills of fame and success, one of the rabbits remarks that the whole enterprise will probably be adapted into “a sassy hipfest for commercial gain—probably by an American,” with a knowing look into the camera. And eventually, Peter and his pals go on the kind of outrageous adventures Bea believes would be too implausible for her characters and too unconscionable for her as a writer.
At the film’s start, though, Bea and Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, physically game as always) are getting married, surrounded by their friends and the farm animals. Mr. McGregor and Peter (voiced once again by the ubiquitous James Corden) have reached an uneasy détente over the two loves they share: vegetables and Bea. But when charismatic and handsome publisher Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo)—a name so British it could earn him a spot in Spinal Tap—also takes a liking to Bea and her work, it complicates everything. A trip to London makes Peter realize he’s being turned into a villainous figure in Basil-Jones’ vision of the Peter Rabbit universe. He figures: “Why not be a bad guy if I’m just going to get framed as one?” and takes up with a Fagin-like fellow rabbit, a street thief named Barnabas (Lennie James), and his gang of crafty kittens.
The highlight of this alliance is a grand scheme to rob the local farmers market—because planning the heist is hilariously detailed, and also because the depiction of the artisanal specialties in store is so universal. During a house burglary, Barnabas also has an extremely relatable line about how every refrigerator contains an expensive bottle of champagne, just waiting to be opened at a special occasion that never comes. (My 11-year-old even recognized that one: “It’s true!” he leaned over and whispered during a screening.) Meanwhile, Peter’s true family and friends—including narrator Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne) and Benjamin (Colin Moody)—mostly show up here and there for wacky interludes, including Cottontail’s discovery of the wonders of jellybeans.
There’s an amusing running gag in which a busking squirrel (singer-songwriter Tim Minchin) just happens to show up everywhere, all the time, and perform exactly the song that sums up how Peter is feeling. But a lot of the self-referential jokes here are callbacks to the first film: the deer in the headlights, the rooster who thinks he makes the sun come up each morning. Sure, you gotta play the hits, but these bits feel flat this time.
By indulging in the exact same instincts it insists are problematic artistically, “Peter Rabbit 2” wants to have its carrot and eat it, too. But maybe that won’t bother you. Maybe you’ll be grateful for a return to the theater and the opportunity to do so with your kids. In that regard, the sequel hops along in sufficiently bouncy fashion.