The first handful of family films released in 2018 reflect a turbulent genre full of oddities and extremities, whimsy and disturbance. These movies — Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and the straight-to-DVD Woody Woodpecker — got varying critical responses and have different audiences. Paddington 2 is a British movie based on a British property made predominantly for British people; Peter Rabbit is an American movie based on a British property aimed at Brits and Americans; and Woody Woodpecker … well, it’s an American film based on an American cartoon made in Canada with Brazilians in mind. You follow?
The results vary. Sometimes severely. But they have much in common. They’re all old characters — Peter Rabbit debuted in 1902, Woody Woodpecker in 1940, Paddington in 1958 — and the movies all have the same idea: to bring a beloved anthropomorphic animal creation of yesteryear to today’s young audiences.
All three movies favor heavy slapstick, silly juvenile gags, high-stakes action, and the occasional gross-out gag (sometimes more than occasional). Paddington 2 follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, tracking its titular marmalade-loving, blue-jacket-wearing talking bear as he tries to find the perfect gift for his treasured Aunt Lucy in Peru. But when Paddington crosses paths with the dastardly actor Phoenix Buchanan (a delighted and delightful Hugh Grant), Paddington is framed for robbery and sent to jail. The Brown family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Samuel Joslin, Madeline Harris) must devise a plan to free the bear.
The plots for Peter Rabbit and Woody Woodpecker, meanwhile, are remarkably similar to each other. Both center around cocky, arrogant outdoor creatures forced to deal with unwanted new human neighbors — Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) in Peter Rabbit and Lance Walters (Timothy Omundson) in Woody Woodpecker — who wish to sell their inherited land to local investors. But the creatures put up a fight, and both Peter Rabbit and Woody Woodpecker involve turf wars between humans and animals. Spoiler alert: the animals win the humans over with the help of a beautiful local — Rose Byrne in Peter Rabbit and Jordana Largy in Woody Woodpecker.
All three movies own up to their cartoonish sensibilities and are full of goofy antics for the kids, knowing winks and meta jokes for the adults. Where these movies differ, not only in quality but in execution, is in how much they respect their respective source materials. Paddington 2 loves Michael Bond’s creation, and that big-hearted appreciation bleeds into every single frame. Director Paul King’s adaptations capture a timeless pop-up book quality, one that invites you into the warm splendor found in the author’s creation. It’s at once a joyous celebration of cinematic creativity and a rich, wondrous tribute to Bond’s books that’ll keep them adored for years to come.
Woody Woodpecker is, well, similar to the original cartoons, in that they both feature the same screechy, high-pitched laughing bird, but there’s a general laziness to its execution that’s intolerable. As a direct-to-DVD movie meant mainly to appeal to Brazilian audiences with American filmmaking sensibilities, it’s an inherently odd movie, yet its formulaic plotting and unimaginative story make it frustratingly dull and savagely generic. Director Alex Zamm is the same low-rent auteur behind such certified classics as Chairman of the Board, Tooth Fairy 2 with Larry the Cable Guy, and last year’s unsuspecting Netflix hit A Christmas Prince. And his credibility shows. Woody Woodpecker is such a cheap, insufferably unassuming movie that it could honestly have been the general script outline for any cartoon character turned live action.
It’s so padded out, so barely held together as a film, that it literally includes an original animated Woody Woodpecker short after the credits to stretch it out past the 90-minute mark. But it inadvertently goes to show you all the ways Zamm got it wrong here. From the listless character interactions (it’s unclear —even after an hour-and-a-half — if the humans can understand what Woody is saying), to the exceptionally poor special effects, it is roughly as charming as a woodpecker pecking at your noggin for 90 minutes.
And then there’s Peter Rabbit, which is a strange concoction indeed. Director Will Gluck doesn’t even try to make a traditional, respectful retelling of Beatrix Potter’s refined character, opting instead for an irreverent sort of “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. The film itself plays a lot like a PG-version of Neighbors, including the presence of Rose Byrne. But throughout its odd existence, there is a great deal of inspiration and a clearly beating heart. The movie won’t win the unabashed love of Potter fans everywhere, but it might inspire some new fans all the same. It’s as sweet as it is off-putting, a family film with no clear intentions but a sincere aim to please. Does it work? Yes and no. It’s a middling studio effort that works where it shouldn’t and doesn’t work where it should. Does that technically make it a success? Honestly, I’m not even sure.
With that broad scope of recent family pictures, however, audiences can see what family entertainment is like today. For every near-classic, you get a true stinker. And along the way, you get something that doesn’t fit neatly into any one box. All three films take their beloved characters and run with them, providing three unique examples of what becomes of popular literary and cartoon characters inside the moviemaking system.
Will Ashton pecks wood in Pittsburgh.