Zach Steensma—Staff Writer
British scientist, author and illustrator Beatrix Potter is best known for her classic children’s books featuring woodland creatures.
Perhaps her most famous work, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was first published in 1902 and has been a childhood staple ever since.
I, for one, grew up reading these stories, admiring each page of beautiful watercolor illustrations featuring rabbits, squirrels, frogs and other animals, usually dressed in tiny coats and getting themselves into mischief. Potter, influenced by the fairy tales and fables she read growing up, often ended her stories with characters facing the consequences of their actions and learning a lesson.
Needless to say, the initial trailers for Sony Picture’s 3D animated/live action adaptation, “Peter Rabbit,” left audiences both disgusted and confused: Why were the animals holding a rave in Mr. McGregor’s house? Why was there pop music playing in the background? Why was James Corden playing the titular role? Who gave Sony the rights to this franchise? Why was this movie being made in the first place?
There is, admittedly, a higher degree of faithfulness to the books than one might expect: The movie begins with a relatively accurate retelling of the original classic tale, where Peter Rabbit (played by James Corden, his first role since last year’s Emoji Movie), his cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), and his sisters Flopsy (Morgot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), prepare a heist on the garden of Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), the protective farmer from the original stories.
However, Peter is soon spotted by McGregor, and, this time, in a surprising twist, he is caught right before McGregor drops dead from cardiac arrest (apparently the writers thought it would be ironic to have a man who spends his life growing and protecting his vegetables lead an unhealthy lifestyle filled with junk food).
In addition, there is a brief backstory given on the rabbit family, featuring excellent storybook style animation that looks nearly identical to Potter’s original watercolor illustrations. But the segment is brief, and here the similarities come to an end.
Soon after it begins, the movie deviates heavily from the original books. For starters, there is an entirely new lead character, a human named Bea (Rose Byrne), who is neighbor to the grouchy farmer Mr. McGregor (from the original stories) and, unlike McGregor, is sympathetic towards the rabbits and seeks to defend them from his wrath. In her all too abundant spare time, she is a painter who illustrates the rabbits, perhaps as a nod to Potter herself.
Following the death of McGregor, Peter and the whole countryside gang of animals proceed to trash McGregor’s estate in a tout of uncharacteristic crassness. The party is soon disrupted when Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), McGregor’s uptight great nephew and heir, arrives at the scene to clean up the mess, prepare the house for selling, and, of course, remove all wildlife from the premises. However, Thomas quickly strikes up a romance with Bea and sees a change of heart, while Peter, out of jealousy, continues to assail and torment Thomas with pranks and traps, as both man and rabbit fight for the heart of an oblivious Bea. The narrative is surprisingly cohesive and even charming at times, and there is at least an attempt at giving the story a moral. At the very least, the abundant slapstick seemed entertaining to all the children in the theater.
But this is still not enough to make up for the movie’s faults. There is plenty of crude humor, annoyingly unfitting references to 21st Century pop culture, and no small amount of repetitive Corden-esque jokes that, for some reason, the writers felt needed to be repeated throughout the run of the movie (despite not being funny the first time), as if making the exact same jokes over and over somehow makes them funnier (perhaps as a misguided attempt at self-aware or meta humor).
As far as children’s movies go, there are far better adaptations out there, and “Peter Rabbit” is, at a best, a slightly amusing slapstick cartoon, and, at worst, a disgrace to the original books. In other words, you can skip and hop your way over this one. You won’t be missing out.