In 1902, Beatrix Potter introduced to the world a mischievous bunny in a blue jacket with an ill-advised penchant for the local farmer’s veggie patch. Potter’s own beautiful illustrations depicted floral watercolour landscapes in a romantic rendering of England’s Lake District, and added visuals to Peter Rabbit and his companions, including sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail. Since then, these images would be mined again and again in merchandise from wallpaper to baby formula. Using the familiar artwork, new iterations of the story would feature in books and TV (generally animated).
Now, Sony has released a live action and CGI composited film, simply titled Peter Rabbit. Directed by Will Gluck (Annie and Easy A), this new incarnation of the story eschews classic timelessness in its style, instead aiming squarely at the contemporary child, through its pop music, modern sensibilities, and reference humour, as well as some jarringly inappropriate jokes. It is not a nostalgia piece.
The animated Peter is voiced by an always endearing James Corden (good choice, as it makes the rabbit seem less of a jerk). A star-heavy supporting cast also lends some weight, with Daisy Ridley, Sia and Margot Robbie providing voices, and Sam Neil appearing as the curmudgeonly farmer Mr McGregor. At first, we find Peter engaged in his ongoing war with McGregor over the vegetable patch while, in his downtime, earning the motherly sympathyof the pretty neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne), who insists the rabbit doesn’t deserve animosity for just doing what animals do. Bea hangs around and paints watercolours of, you guessed it, the rabbits in their floral landscapes. But from here the story takes a new turn. Old McGregor is promptly dispatched to make way for his great-nephew from the city, Tom McGregor (a stylishly attired and weirdly dark-haired Domhnall Gleeson), and a new, nastier war over the veggie patch ensues. It all becomes kind of Home Alone, if the roles were reversed and the kid was the one intruding on the thieves – and we were still supposed to root for him to win.
What is it with mean-spirited kids’ movies? From the outset, in an intro by a singing group of ill-fated birds who will be providing much of the musical soundtrack to the story, Peter Rabbit announces itself as a film that is going to have fun inflicting vindictive pain on its antagonists. If you thought you were in for something sweet and charming, by the sixth or seventh time Tom McGregor gets deliberately electrocuted you’ll be under no such illusion. But it gets worse. At the climax of the war, in a moment reminiscent of a torture scene from a much more adult movie we are gleefully treated to the sight of a rabbit-inflicted anaphylactic reaction to blackberries! Unapologetically! And no, it’s not enough of an excuse to have Peter literally turn to the camera and implore us not to send letters of protest (there is a boycott movement underway in the US). The situation is such that of course the movie couldn’t allow McGregor to submit Peter to the degree of pain that he himself is experiencing, or that would be, I dunno, CRUEL.
Ok, I get slapstick. Pratfalls can be funny. In comedy the victim of the worst punishment can stand up and shake it off. Maybe stick an epipen in their leg.But physical humour doesn’t have to be mean. Frankly, these days the young Macaulay Culkin just comes off as a jerk to me. Don’t you think children’s movies are targeted pretty early to be so shamelessly celebrating the theme of revenge? A lot more films suffer from this. The Pixar movies Up and Coco let themselves down by killing off their villains mercilessly. This is a shame, as Pixar is normally so humane and thoughtful about the complex nature of being alive. See Wall E, or Ratatouille, which invites us to lend grace to those who judge us. Disney’s Big Hero 6 is another somewhat recent example of a kid’s movie that humanises its villain. Stories like this may go their way to helping bring up young people who seek to understand their enemies and look for peaceful solutions to conflict, instead of fostering a worldview that would pile violence upon more violence.
Admittedly, Peter Rabbit does turn it around at the end. Gleeson somehow manages the task of being simultaneously a psychotic control freak and a redeemable love interest to Bea. That’s some grace shown. And there is time given to some rabbit-style apologising (done by touching foreheads together apparently). But resolution comes only after the movie has had its wicked fun (and then the denouement directs its malice towards new characters). For me, it was not enough to remove the bad taste from my mouth.
Peter Rabbit has some appeal. The performances are excellent. There is some wit amongst the more lazy jokes, and it rollicks along entertainingly, providing some character arcs. The animated creatures are convincing and there are a few charming moments that bring Potter’s original artwork to life. But it also flirts with the edges of a cynical cash-in. “Potter-sploitation”, if you will. Kids will enjoy it, and it’s not a bad family movie choice (although you’ll try in vain to atone for not seeing Paddington 2, a far superior film). My sincere hope is that Peter Rabbit stimulates a spike in carrot demand.
One last point: Domhnall Gleeson is dressed really well. Sharp. Nice combos of skinny cinos and vests. I was particularly taken with a navy blazer and blue jeans outfit. Tailored and handsome. Really well cut. So to finish on a positive note, here’s a picture of a smart city-casual/animals-have-been-on-a-rampage-in-my-house look.
Peter Rabbit is in cinemas this weekend.
This article was first published at Layperson Film Snobbery