When I called 2018’s Peter Rabbit “nihilistic money-grubbing garbage” that engaged in nonstop “sullen bratty championing of cruelty and disenchantment,” I didn’t mean any of that as a compliment. But for Peter Rabbit 2 — unnecessarily subtitled in the US with “The Runaway” — returning writer and director Will Gluck (Annie, Easy A) seems to have taken it as such, and doubled down on all that awfulness for his sequel.
If Beatrix Potter was rolling in her grave after the desecration of her twee bunny stories that was the first movie — and of course she was — I cannot imagine what her poor corpse is doing now. For this second movie opens with a brutal fight scene at the wedding of Bea (Rose Byrne: Irresistible, Mrs America) and Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Little Stranger), because who doesn’t love a fight scene at a country garden wedding in a children’s movie? While we’re wondering: Why the hell is Bea marrying Thomas, who has all the charisma of a moldy kitchen sponge and who also treats her forest-critter neighbors, whom she adores, as if they are vermin? Will the inevitable Peter Rabbit 3 be subtitled “The Divorce”?
Anyway — spoiler! — the wedding brawl turns out to be but a daydream of our “hero,” Peter Rabbit (CGI with the voice of James Corden: Trolls: World Tour, Yesterday), indulging the the id of all small children who hate adults, I guess. The movie’s other huge, raucous attack on humans, injuring many innocent bystanders, will take place at a farmers’ market; this is not a daydream, and it comes with blatant undertones of “farmers’ markets are cringey bourgeois clown shows.” If you thought a movie based on books by a woman who funneled the proceeds of her considerable homemade success toward efforts to conserve the natural world might embrace eating local and supporting smallholding farmers and craftspeople, think again.
None of that is even close to the worst aspect of this cynical nightmare of a movie. Nope. The first movie suggested that Bea is a stand-in for Potter, and this sequel confirms it: she is self-publishing twee bunny books, to great acclaim, and she is being courted for the movie rights. The movie version won’t be gentle or sweet, smarmy executive Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo [Gringo, A United Kingdom]; why?!) explains; so, not like the books at all. Instead, there shall be car chases and action sequences! Timeless bunny boy will be updated for the modern world, with villainy and, oh, skateboards and space missions and stuff.
Bea is, rightly, horrified… but Peter Rabbit 2 forces her — and us — to endure car chases and action sequences in an embarrassing attempt at being clever and meta. Gluck and his cowriter, Patrick Burleigh, don’t just hate Beatrix Potter, they hate us, too, and think that a wink and a nudge toward their own bleak worldweariness will win us over. It does not.
• Peter Rabbit movie review: splat the bunny