Director: Will Gluck
Writers: Rob Lieber & Will Gluck. Based on the work of Beatrix Potter.
Composer: Dominic Lewis
Starring: James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Fantasy
Thanks to a horrid trailer, no one at GUG really believed that this adaptation of Peter Rabbit would be any good. Suspecting only a vapid form of entertainment, one that trashed the cherished tale from Beatrix Potter, critics were quick to cry that this film would bomb. So it came and went from American cinemas… along with any negativity. It seemed that the film wasn’t as bad as it seemed, and many parents vouched that not only did it contain some charm, but it was also funny.
I still wasn’t convinced to spend money on a ticket. That was until I attended a party. A friend, knowing that I was a film critic, claimed that no matter what opinion I had about the movie, it wouldn’t change the fact that she loved it. She didn’t care if it wasn’t perfect or critically acclaimed, she had a hoot! Now I was curious! With more than a few positive reviews rolling in, and friends saying it was the funniest thing they’ve seen this year, I finally found myself booking one of the last sessions in Australian cinemas. So was this film worth a look? Did we miss something here?
Violence/Scary Images: It’s revealed that Peter’s dad was eaten in a pie (not seen on camera). A human dies suddenly due to natural causes. The animals and humans repeatedly express desires to kill each other. Numerous near-death experiences: electrocution, explosions with sticks of dynamite, getting whacked with rakes and rat traps, anaphylactic shock. Cruelty towards animals; characters almost bludgeoned or drowned. Some of these issues are addressed in the main review.
Language/Crude Humor: No swears, but insults are used: halfwit, imbecile, idiot, stupid, butt, heck, and country bumpkin.
Drug/Alcohol References: A character is seen drinking alcohol in a quick montage–it’s meant to depict an unhealthy lifestyle. During a wild house party, several characters act as though they’re high or drunk, though no such substances are consumed, only vegetables. A running gag involves squeezing berries and letting the juice drip to the ground whenever a deceased character is mentioned. This is a gang member reference.
Sexual Content: Two characters date, flirt, and kiss. Wearing low pants, the crack of a bottom is shown. A male character is seen in his boxers. A rooster crows about fertilizing eggs. There is a joke about the new meaning of the word “homewrecker”, streaking, and a jacket with buttons that look like nipples. Peter sticks his head out of a hole in the crotch of a pair of jeans.
Other Negative Content: The main protagonist is poorly behaved and is not a good role model. The antagonist is equally despicable.
Positive Content: The film has a lot to say about the nastiness of jealousy and revenge, along with the power of forgiveness.
Peter Rabbit is certainly not the crass, immature movie that was initially advertised to audiences, though it may unexpectedly appeal more to adults than children. Under the guise of being incredibly insipid, once given a chance, the film reveals multiple clever narrative choices that both modernize the early 20th-century book while also staying true to its core essence.
If we think back to the original source material, Peter Rabbit was always the naughty bunny. Causing and getting into mischief was his character trait; an archetype that goes hand in hand with Jemima Puddle-Duck’s naivety and Mrs. Tittlemouse’s cleanliness. The film goes to the trouble of deepening Peter’s motives. Orphaned and without any older role models of the same species, the rabbits (Peter, his sisters, and Benjamin) display delinquent behaviors, recklessly interacting with Old Mr. McGregor (a very well-disguised Sam Neill) out of bitterness and for the sheer thrill of it. Given his traumatic past, Peter’s antics make sense on a psychological level, and as far as the narrative goes, it’s a logical step to then adapt this character as an immature frat boy that’s neither child nor an adult, reveling in dangerous sensory-seeking pursuits.
The first act of the film follows the original tale rather closely. Though once all those story beats are hit, it becomes obvious that a straight adaptation was never going to stretch out into a feature-length movie. Bolstered with deeper characterization, the narrative is blessed further with the clever introduction of two additional characters–Bea (Rose Byrne) and Mr. McGregor’s son, fabulously played by Domhnall Gleeson. Children will be entertained by the continual family feud, whereas adults might oddly relate to Gleeson’s attitudes, and enjoy the meta references the film provides, as, you may have guessed, Bea is a nod to Beatrix Potter.
Due to its acknowledgment and almost being an outright author-insert, Peter Rabbit develops a charm that’s similar to 2006’s Miss Potter. By closely following the tale in the opening act, then paying tribute to Beatrix Potter for the rest of the runtime, the film is therefore rather mindful and respectful of the source material, much more than what the original trailer suggests.
The only downside is that it has trouble balancing the fictional and factual worlds. It’s never really clear as to what the film’s rules are in regards to the rabbits’ appearance. Why is it that their clothing rarely is mentioned? At first, I assumed that the story was being presented through Bea’s imaginative eyes, though it’s soon revealed that it’s not the case, and McGregor and Bea’s perceptions are wildly different. Are the anthropomorphized actions a fantasy that the audience is a part of, or is that how the rabbits actually behave in the real world of the film? Unfortunately, the movie takes too long to clarify the story’s mechanics.
In any case, Peter Rabbit is one of the more self-referential children’s films in existence. As such, its level of humor is elevated. This movie could have easily resorted to gaining cheap laughs by repeatedly joking about bathroom habits. While a lot of the comedy is slapstick, the film has enough self awareness to reach out to the adults in the audience, sit down beside them, commiserate over the fact that we have seen this type of story before, but reassures them with a clever wink and an appreciated nod, all in tune to a catchy rock song.
Peter Rabbit does have wonderful comedic timing, with Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson seemingly having a blast in their slightly exaggerated roles. Yet if the movie’s type of humor doesn’t tickle your funny bone, it is at least a beautifully rendered film. For the vast majority of the runtime, the animals are gorgeously animated, with great attention given to each individual strand of fur, though there is an odd moment or two where the characters don’t seem to be living in the same space as the real world.
James Corden’s voice really does suit the titular happy-go-lucky mischievous rabbit. Though one can’t really admire this particular protagonist as he is heavily flawed and essentially a horrible role model for children. Though his bad behavior must be assessed within the context of the film’s wider morality tale. This is the point where I must address Peter Rabbit’s most notorious scandal–the scene concerning food allergies, and the characters’ inappropriate attitudes towards sufferers.
For a movie aimed at kids, the film does feature quite a bit of violence, though it’s never gory. If you’re concerned about this, then a good litmus test would be Home Alone. The holiday flick is a classic due to Macaulay Culkin’s charming attitude and his ingenious traps, though if you now look back on the film as an adult and cringe at how psychopathic and deadly the protagonist’s action are, then you will most likely develop the same viewpoint regarding Peter Rabbit, as both films share the same lethal slapstick humor.
In defense of the animated movie, that level of violence can be justified. Both McGregors in the story wish to kill the rabbits because, well, that’s how humans treat rodents. Exterminating pests isn’t perceived as a seriously heavy topic. Peter and the rest of his family seem to understand that this is how the world works (though they wish it could change), and life and death situations occur every day. Acting out as a way to avoid growing up, Peter actually thrives on the excitement of these close encounters. So in a weird way, it makes sense for the rabbits to treat the death of a human just as frivolously. Soon a potentially deadly tit-for-tat game develops between the two species–despite the content, the mood of the film is kept light and silly.
That is until the food allergy scene. Before then, a number of dangerous scenarios are treated flippantly–electrocution, bear traps, and the like. Yet when Peter conceives the idea of using McGregor’s blackberry allergy against him, while it’s not necessarily more deadly than what has already been shown, it is more personal. Benjamin, who operates as the voice of reason in this film, blatantly states the seriousness of these types of medical conditions, to which Peter then acknowledges that fact… Except it’s “this guy!” Peter knows it’s wrong but wants to make an exception.
Once again the film displays its sense of self-awareness by directly addressing the audience’s concerns. It even goes as far to say straight to the camera that they hope they won’t “get any letters”, especially given that they’ve openly discussed it. Context is everything. Though even with the film lampshading the issue, it’s understandable that parents are worried that a child may think it’s funny to smuggle in peanut butter or another high allergy-risk food and give it to a person they dislike. In any case, adults may feel the need to speak to their kids afterward to clarify the incident.
So did the scene need to be in there in the first place? Could the whole issue have been avoided? Yes and no. Since the entire story is founded on life or death stakes, it needed an event of considerable weight to propel it forward. Toying with a food allergy keeps those stakes high, makes it personal, while also being potentially non-lethal. Aside from poisoning, there aren’t many other acts that could narratively achieve the same outcome without getting too gruesome. This moment does change the film. Peter has gone too far, and it’s the catalyst for a new wave of hostility. Maybe another act could have been chosen, but unlike Show Dog’s horrendously ill-thought scenes involving the acceptance of molestation, removing the food allergy bit isn’t a simple cut, as it’s a critical piece of the plot.
Regardless of the film’s slapstick violence, there are some lovely messages throughout the movie. It offers a rather mature lesson regarding the independence of friendships–just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean that everyone else has to hate them as well. Other people have the right to befriend who they wish, and it’s not them who need to change, but rather your attitude towards the whole situation. Honestly, there are a few adults in my life that I feel could benefit from the moral of this movie!
Ultimately Peter Rabbit isn’t as sincere or beautifully structured as a Pixar flick, nor is it as wonderfully charming as this year’s Paddington 2 (which is a tough film to beat in general, as I’m sure it’s still in 2018’s top 10 for many critics). Yet for a children’s movie done in this schlocky style, which has become a bit of a sub-genre in itself, it’s very good. There’s a cleverness to its wit despite some whimsical stupidity.
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