PETER RABBIT 2: THE RUNAWAY (G, 93 minutes)
The 2018 Peter Rabbit movie - based on the beloved Beatrix Potter character - was a splendid showcase for the dazzling visual wizardry of the Australian animation outfit Animal Logic (of Happy Feet and The Lego Movie acclaim).
Thanks to Animal Logic's skilled digital effects artists and technicians, Peter and his furry friends seemed to leap off the screen - so astonishingly lifelike as they scampered about farmer McGregor's vegetable patch wearing their little coloured coats, you wanted to reach out and touch their adorably fluffy and floppy photorealistic ears.
To think what this crew could do with Watership Down!
The Animal Logic magic deserved a much better movie than Peter Rabbit. That film was ghastly: pointlessly loud, annoyingly brash and crammed with loutish conduct unbecoming a series of celebrated storybooks treasured across the generations for its quiet, mannered, heart-warming charm.
With a cocky protagonist, shouty dialogue and strained humour, the film was oh-so Hollywood: crass and chaotic.
Its slapstick occasionally veered beyond mean-spirited towards sadistic - the Wile E. Coyote-style cartoon violence losing its comic absurdity in the translation to live-action and jarring with the realism of the animation.
How many attempts to bash, strangle, squash, stab, trap and electrocute cute-looking woodland creatures is too many?
If those sequences weren't discomforting enough, a scene in which Peter and his pals deliberately pelt fruit at their new human neighbour to trigger anaphylaxis got children's health groups hopping mad and led to complaints about "food allergy bullying".
Of course, the movie's shrill antics with red dynamite sticks and potentially deadly blackberries didn't prevent it raking in a juicy pile of lettuce - some $US350million at the box office worldwide - for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Which brings us to the inevitable Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway - released just in time for the Easter school holidays (albeit with no Easter theme as such).
Happily, the sequel is a vast improvement on the original. And not just because our expectations have been lowered.
The film opens with the wedding of human characters Bea (Rose Byrne) and McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) and then follows Peter (voiced by James Corden) as he runs away to the city after a smooth-talking publisher (David Oyelowo) proposes to transform Bea's books about her country rabbits into a sassy multimedia brand with the mischievous Peter cast as the "bad seed".
Hanging out with an older streetwise rabbit named Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James, from The Walking Dead), Peter joins his gang of sketchy grifters (enter Tom Kitten and Samuel Whiskers, among others) and gets caught up in an elaborate heist at a farmer's market.
Second time around, writer-director Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends With Benefits) draws from the source material with more feeling and focus. The script has a winning sense of humour and a winking self-awareness perhaps borne of the kerfuffles created by his 2018 film.
First time, it felt like Gluck blew up the world of Beatrix Potter without knowing why he was doing it, or how he could make it better. This time, he has seized the opportunity to build on her characters and say something meaningful to today's audiences about finding your own way and learning from your mistakes.
To be sure, Peter Rabbit 2 doesn't have the warm whimsical wit and delicate delight of George Miller's Babe or the sweetness and intelligence of the recent Paddington movies.
Potter purists be warned: expect more rambunctious shenanigans that take her menagerie far, far away from their quaint and dainty watercolour origins - including into cheeky riffs on Guy Ritchie gangster movies (Lock, Stock & Two Joking Bunnies, anyone?) and James Bond action scenes.
Yes, these are probably just cynical attempts to amuse grown-ups while the kids relish the cartoonish antics and Home Alone-style pratfalls. With a less frenetic pace and much funnier jokes, the sequel comes together quite agreeably as a family-friendly frolic.
Porcupine Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and city rat Samuel Whiskers get laugh-out loud one-liners, Cottontail discovers the sugar highs and lows of eating too many lollies and there are some clever visual set-pieces, including recycling bins turned into a game of whack-a-mole.
With Animal Logic's wonderfully cuddlesome animation to draw you in and Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams an astute choice for the soundtrack, Peter Rabbit 2 burrows nicely into your heart.
- Reviewed at Dendy Cinemas Canberra.