PETER RABBIT. Starring (by voice, or live): James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neil, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and Colin Moody. Directed by Will Gluck. Rated PG (Mild themes and violence). 95 min.
This Australian-American film is a live action computer-animated comedy of a screenplay written by Will Gluck, the Director of the movie, and Rob Lieber. The screenplay is based on the stories of the character of the same name created by Beatrix Potter. The film largely was shot in Sydney, and features many well known Australian actors and actresses.
Peter Rabbit (James Corden) feuds with Mr. McGregor (Sam Neil) and is competing with him for the attention of warm-hearted animal lover, Bea (Rose Byrne), who lives next door. Mr. McGregor is concerned about Peter and he tries to scare him away, and Peter doesn’t like that. Peter Rabbit is cute-looking and cuddly at times, but generally leads his family of rabbits and friends forcefully and aggressively to get access to Mr. McGregor’s tasty vegetable garden.
Peter, his cousin (Colin Moody), and his triplet sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), live in a burrow next to Mr. McGregor’s house, and they steal his vegetables whenever they can. One day, Peter returns to Mr. McGregor’s house to retrieve a jacket he left behind, when Mr. McGregor chases him and dies from a heart attack. Peter then invites all his woodland friends over to Mr. McGregor’s house, to occupy it.
Told that his great-uncle’s house is valuable, Mr. McGregor’s distant and up-tight nephew, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), who lives in London and works in “Harrods”, declares war on Peter and orders him and his friends to move out of his great-uncle’s house, and proceeds to barricade it. The tension between Thomas and Peter escalates, and their interactions become violent. In the ensuing conflict, Peter accidentally blows Bea’s art studio up, and is responsible for Bea thinking that Thomas has destroyed it. Contrite, and wanting to make things right, Peter makes up with Thomas, and indicates to Bea that he was responsible for what has happened. Peter, Bea and Thomas then move off together to London where Bea starts to paint, and write about, the adventures of Peter Rabbit and his friends.
This is a comedy that plays very loosely with Beatrix Potter’s material in an adult-like way. Instead of depicting Peter Rabbit’s adventures as good, bad, mean, playful or not, adult motivations are employed that make many of its scenes quite striking. In this film, there are lots of action, physical attacks, and use of sharp-edged weapons. The charming flavour of Potter’s work gives way to frenetic activity, explosions, and chases, and the scripting is often very mature. Particularly contentious is a scene where the movie makes fun of people, who have food allergies - rabbits fire a blackberry into Thomas’s mouth, and he develops a severe allergic reaction, that induces an anaphylactic shock, which almost kills him. The distributing company (Sony Pictures) has publicly apologised for the scene.
The film is essentially a modern-day rewrite of Potter’s work to widen appeal. There are lots of delightful moments, such as the rooster being angry that sun-rise is here “yet again”, and the scenes of the rabbits dancing to catchy music are charming, but the movie doesn’t elicit the satisfying smiles that “Paddington 2” (2017) so easily did with its general cheeriness and good wit. In this movie, slapstick violence is regarded as an entertaining substitute for mischievous play.
This is a comedy that departs from the simplicity of Potter’s imaginative creations to give them a distinctive stamp, which it does. Peter Rabbit wanting to put a carrot into Mr. Murdoch’s back side is something which Beatrix Potter would never have approved of, and is an unfortunate result (in a PG movie) of the film’s desire to look modern. This being said, the computer animation is seamless, the production is colourfully vivid, Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson act their roles well, and the musical score is attractive, but the film is not quite the “hybrid family comedy”, that its marketing messages make it out to be.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 22nd., 2018