If Beatrix Potter were reborn as dean of students at Lake District U., the latest version of Peter Rabbit would represent her worst nightmare. This frat-bunny comedy is a part-CGI Animal House that revels in theft, gluttony, vandalism, and absurdly destructive pranks. All that's missing is the scene where Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-Tail filch the wrong kind of mushrooms from Mr. McGregor's garden and hop into a bad trip.
Director Will Gluck's skillfully animated, indifferently scripted farce even includes sex, albeit of the PG-rated variety. Peter (the voice of the always self-amused James Corden) finds himself in a love triangle whose apex is artist and animal-lover Bea (Rose Byrne). Peter's romantic rival and new nemesis is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, fresh from messing with another furry Brit-lit icon in Goodbye Christopher Robin).
The script (by Rob Lieber and Gluck) is careful to have Peter say he considers Bea a surrogate mother. That might make sense, since Bea is a stand-in for the rabbit's creator, the subject of 2006's more historically minded Miss Potter. (Bea even does Potter-style whimsical watercolors of the local critters, which sometimes come to life.) But Peter is clearly a randy adolescent, not an innocent child, and his response to Bea and Thomas' flirtations is jealous indignation.
The story begins in the vicinity of Potter's original tale, with Peter at war with Mr. McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill). Cousin Benjamin (Matt Lucas) reluctantly joins in Peter's garden raids, while the triplets (Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and narrator Margot Robbie) engage in sisterly squabbles.
McGregor soon pays the ultimate price for defending his veggies, a fate that seems a bit severe for a kiddie flick. (But then he did kill Peter's dad, a murder shown in a flashback that's also inappropriately lurid.) The grumpy gardener's heir is his nephew, Thomas, a prissy Harrod's manager who's every bit as theatrical as Hugh Grant's character in Paddington 2.
Thomas hates the country, and plans to sell his uncle's surprisingly grand house as soon as he can evict Peter and his pals, a veritable Wind in the Willows casting-call of British pastoral species. Then Thomas meets Bea, and decides to linger. When not pursuing romance, Thomas chases Peter. Ultimately, the newcomer turns to the sort of arsenal that was equally ineffective when deployed by Wile E. Coyote.
Gluck sends the camera swooping up trees and across fields, an action-movie gambit that suits Corden's characteristically frantic delivery. Yet the tale's velocity can't disguise its repetitiveness. Peter Rabbit is sometimes crass, but more often simply dull. Having Peter drop such contemporary phrases as "safe space" and "let's do this" doesn't help.
The movie's opening slyly promises a Disney-style cartoon musical, and while the chirpily sentimental first tune is quickly disrupted, Peter Rabbit is stuffed with song cues. There's the inevitable rap number, as well as several movie-soundtrack staples that will be more familiar to parents than kids. If Vampire Weekend seems oddly over-represented, that's because that band's Ezra Koenig collaborated with Gluck on a few dreary originals.
Ironically, Potter's mildly naughty rabbit helped inspired such cartoon troublemakers as Bugs Bunny. Both Peter and Bugs' brands of mischief have shown their enduring appeal. This new CGI Peter has plenty of attitude, but it probably won't propel him even so far as a sequel.