Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They all wore high-top sneakers, surfed at the beach and traveled by spaceship.
If those doesn't sound like the beloved Beatrix Potter stories you know from your childhood, it's because they're not. Rather, those are the outrageous suggestions of wheedling book publisher Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), a new character in "Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway" (now in theaters).
In the sequel to 2018's CGI-live-action hybrid "Peter Rabbit," newly married author Bea (Rose Byrne) is flattered by the newfound success of her first children's book, following the adventures of Peter (voiced by James Corden) and his rabbit friends (including Elizabeth Debicki and Margot Robbie) in the English countryside. She meets with Nigel about creating a potential book franchise, but is adamant about maintaining artistic integrity.
David Oyelowo talks directing 'The Water Man,' working with Nate Parker
"My book is very personal to me and I don’t want it to be compromised," Bea says early in the film. "I’d be spinning in my grave if it was ever adapted into some sassy hip-fest purely for commercial gain, probably by an American."
That's a wink to the movie's co-writer/director Will Gluck, a New York native whose credits include the Emma Stone comedy "Easy A" and the reimagined "Annie" starring Quvenzhané Wallis. The first "Peter Rabbit" was a surprise box-office success with $351.3 million worldwide on a $50 million budget, but fared less well with critics (63% on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes).
Having Bea wrestle with "selling out" was Gluck's way of gently acknowledging complaints about the first movie, which was knocked by the Los Angeles Times for its "crude sight gags and violent set-pieces."
"We knew what people's reactions were after the first one, so it's our way of saying, 'Hey, we know there was talk about that out there' and we acknowledge it," Gluck says. "We tried to do everything we could to honor (Beatrix Potter) and the spirit of her books. But I think because the movie was a departure from the books, (people thought) it was not honoring their memory of reading the books to their children or having the books read to them. That was never our intention, which is why we try to apologize for it in the second movie."
Throughout the sequel, Nigel pressures Bea to make Peter and his friends more contemporary: suggesting they wear jeans and T-shirts, carry surfboards and ukuleles, and even go to space. He also recommends leaning into Peter's mischievous tendencies and making him the villain of future books.
"Everything that came out of David's character's mouth is pretty much a compendium of my entire career in Hollywood and what I've been told," Gluck says. "It's a push-pull between art and commerce, so it was very fun to write that character."
Despite his longstanding rivalry with Peter, it's ultimately Bea's husband, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), who convinces her to keep the book characters as they are.
"I liked that Bea, who's the artist, went down – no pun intended – the rabbit hole and got lost in the stars," Gluck says. "But McGregor, at the end of the day, is probably the most traditional in these films and has the perspective to say, 'Now you're losing your way a little bit.' You always need someone in your life to say, 'Go home and do a gut check. Is this really what you want to do?' "
Peter, too, is forced to reexamine his values. After being told by Nigel and others that he's bad, he turns to a life of petty crime and starts running around with a group of animal grifters, led by a gruff older rabbit named Barnabas (Lennie James).
"The meta stuff is fun, but the Peter story is much more about identity," Gluck says. "In my head, Peter is 14 or 15, and that's a very important time in your life when you start to realize how you're perceived by the world. At that age, it's very hard to ignore what people think about you, so he runs in a bad direction until he realizes that's not who he really is deep down."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Peter Rabbit 2' responds to first movie criticisms with meta humor