Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 30, 2021)
Back in 2018, Peter Rabbit offered a modern-day mix of live-action and CG animation to update Beatrix Potter’s classic story. Though not a huge hit, it did enough to inspire 2021’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.
In the first film, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) and Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) butted heads about the ownership of various produce items. Lovely Bea (Rose Byrne) protected Peter and his animal friends, a factor that caused friction with Thomas.
The two eventually came to terms and fell in love, so Runaway opens with their wedding. Peter struggles to deal the concept of former foe Thomas as his father figure, and Thomas wants human children though Bea seems content to maintain a critter family.
While Thomas attempts to start his own vegetable business, Bea strikes gold with her self-published book about Peter and his pals. This attracts attention from Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), the head of a big London publishing company who wants Bea to dumb down the tales for a mass audience.
These alterations paint the mischievous Peter as a “bad seed”, and confronted with this negative view, Peter leans into the role and becomes part of an animal criminal ring led by Barnabas (Lennie James), an older rabbit who claims he knew Peter’s deceased dad. All of these factors take Peter and the rest on a bunch of adventures.
Man, that seems like a long synopsis for a kiddie movie like Runaway. I probably could’ve just gone with “Peter and pals go on a bunch of adventures” and left it at that, as even with all those character and plot beats, the film really does focus mainly on wacky scenarios.
That becomes a problem, as Runaway often feels like it puts the carrot behind the cart or whatever mangled metaphor you prefer. The first film came with a pretty simple “man vs. bunny” story, and it worked, as it threw out enough clever bits to keep us entertained.
Runaway seems to feel less confident in its ability to maintain an audience, which might be why it delves into so many different plot points. The film seems awfully scattered and disjointed at times, as it doesn’t appear to know where it wants to go.
The main casualty relates to the human characters, and that becomes an issue. One of the prior movie’s strengths came from Gleeson’s dynamic turn as the tale’s “bad guy”, and the flick managed to milk a lot of mirth from the simple “man vs. beast” story.
Though he occasionally gets moments to shine, Gleeson plays a less prominent role here, and Byrne gets a bit lost in the shuffle as well. Honestly, their subplots tend to feel extraneous, as if the movie includes them to fill space but not for much other real purpose.
Not that the main narrative about Peter’s potential split from his family seems especially memorable either. As mentioned, much of Runaway appears to exist to put Peter and the others in comedic circumstances.
This means the story melds itself to these moments. In a better film, the gags would evolve from plot points, but here it works in reverse.
I don’t want to sound too down on Runaway, as even with its messy narrative, it still manages pretty decent entertainment value. Like with the first movie, it delivers more than a few clever comedic beats that will resonate with adults.
Runaway also musters enough of a wink at itself to amuse. The filmmakers know that they’re guilty of some of the sins they accuse Basil-Jones of committing, and they enjoy this meta tone.
The actors fare pretty well in their parts. As mentioned, Gleeson and Byrne get less to do this time, but they still add to their characters, and the voice actors bring out the best in their roles as well.
Truthfully, the biggest issue with Runaway might come from expectations. Though I anticipated a crass piece of kid-oriented junk with the first movie, I thought it worked nicely, and that led me into the sequel with the belief it’d be good.
If I’d entered Runaway on its own, I’d probably like it more. However, since the first film elevated my expectations, it becomes a moderate disappointment.
Though not a major letdown, and that counts for something. Runaway fails to find the same irreverent glee and wit of its predecessor, but it creates decent entertainment.
Footnote: some extra material shows up during the end credits. Once the cast list runs, nothing significant appears after that.