Cast: James Corden, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley (voices), Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill
Director: Will Gluck
Writers: Rob Lieber, Will Gluck
Peter Rabbit, a modern adaptation of a beloved British children’s literary classic, is inevitably going to draw comparisons to Paddington. The latter is a charming, enjoyable film that was able to depict an updated version of the Michael Bond stories while retaining and respecting what people loved about them in the first place and that offers something for children and grown ups alike. Peter Rabbit is none of those things. Not only is this film entirely devoid of charm, wit, and wonder, it unapologetically flies in the face of everything that made the Beatrix Potter stories so appealing. The movie is so obnoxiously deaf to the quaint, pure, profusely British tone of the source material that those who made it ought to be ashamed that they had the audacity to attach this mockery to the same name. If there is one things that disgusts me about this clueless, insufferable travesty above all else, it is the thought of young children being taught that this abominable caricature is an accurate representation of what Potter’s original stories stood for.
Here Peter Rabbit is irritatingly voiced by James Corden (although it would be more accurate to say that the character is James Corden as James Corden as Peter Rabbit as James Corden). He plays Peter as a smart-talking, troublemaking rascal but comes across less as the Artful Dodger and more as Alex DeLarge, a nasty, deceptive, narcissistic sociopath committing juvenile acts with reckless abandon. We first meet him as he and his posse, made up of his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (voiced by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley respectively) and their cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody), hatch a plan to sneak into Farmer McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden to steal his vegetables. While there Peter cannot resist the urge to try and insert a carrot into the unsuspecting farmer’s exposed rear end, a prank that ends up triggering a fatal heart attack. McGregor dies and Peter, celebrating his victory without an inkling of remorse, invites all the woodland animals into the empty house before the unfortunate old man’s corpse is even cold to run rampant and feast on vegetables all day long.
Their revelry is brought to an end however by the arrival of Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), the distant nephew who inherited McGregor’s estate not long after losing his job at Harrods. Thomas is a neurotic city boy who cannot abide chaos or messiness and hates everything about the countryside. His sole intention is to clean up the house, sell it, and use the profits to start his own toy shop to rival Harrods. He reinforces the estate’s security to keep intruders out, leading to an all out war between himself and the woodland creatures involving electric fences and dynamite. The neutral power in this war is Bea (Rose Byrne), presumably a surrogate for Beatrix Potter considering that she is an artist whose work evokes the watercolour illustrations of the books. She lives next door to the McGregor farm and simply adores Peter and all the other animals, but she soon develops a bit of a soft spot for Thomas as she gets to know him and they start spending time together. A jealous Peter thus devotes himself towards destroying Thomas and banishing him from the land.
I wish this film could have just been about Bea and Thomas because Byrne and Gleeson actually work really well together. Both actors try their utmost to bring some layer of appeal to this film and they almost succeed in the brief moments when they are alone together without this detestable CGI pest butting in to make everything about him. She is a compassionate, nurturing figure with a talent for seeing the best in everybody and he is a rigid, obsessive buffoon whose heart is gradually warmed by her presence. Both actors put real feeling and effort into their performances and their chemistry is undeniable. I daresay the two could even have made a half-decent film together about the lives of Beatrix Potter and her husband William Heelis were they not too young. Their quirky countryside love story however is trapped in a crass, abhorrent, shamelessly puerile farce with digital animals and there is nothing either actor can do to save it.
I shudder to think what Potter might have thought had she seen this incarnation of her most beloved character. Peter Rabbit, a mischievous but lovable creature, resilient and brave but also impulsive and childish, a boy who gets wiser as he grows older and learns from his mistakes, and a model of the Edwardian morals and sensibilities of Potter’s generation, is reduced here to an amalgamation of James Corden’s personality and 21st century millennial tropes. This is a Peter who twerks, sings a song written by the guy from Vampire Weekend (because James Corden can never not sing under any circumstances whatsoever), and makes leaves of lettuce rain as if he were a rapper in a strip club. He’s also utterly loathsome from start to finish; he is one of those characters who simply has to be the centre of attention no matter what, is unbearably full of himself, and is indiscriminately horrible to all around him, friend and foe alike. He manipulates and exploits his loved ones, looks out for his own interests above all else, and is incapable of empathy and reason. The final straw for me was the film’s infamous allergy scene, not because allergies are off limits in comedy, but because it’s the scene that truly shows this Peter for the irredeemable piece of trash that he is.
Peter Rabbit is just an awful, awful film. It has an attractive duo in Byrne and Gleeson and there is the occasional laugh, but the pros don’t even begin to make up for the cons. For every decent joke, there are five that range from obvious to crude to stupid. Even then, I feel I could have gone along with more of those jokes were Peter himself not so excruciatingly horrible. Anytime I feel like I’m about to be drawn in by Bea and Thomas, Peter rears his ugly CGI head in and kills the moment dead. Never before have I wanted to punch a rabbit in the face so badly. The film is gaudy, low-brow and obnoxious and is nothing less than an insult to Potter’s memory. There is one scene in the film where we see a flashback recounting the deaths of Peter’s parents which adopts the style of Potter’s illustrations and matches her tone. It is the only scene in the entire film that I liked and, by showing me just a glimpse of what this movie could have been, it made me accordingly hate the rest of the movie even more. The adults who grew up with Potter’s timeless works and the children who have yet to be introduced all deserve better than this.