Oh, how I hated Peter Rabbit. Detest feels like too strong of a word. If only because I’m afraid that if I use it, the universe will mistake it as some sort of challenge and endeavor to prove me wrong. I’m sure there will be worse movies this year. It is only February after all.
I understand that I’m not the audience that a typical kids movie is aimed at. But at ten minutes in Peter Rabbit (James Corden) gleefully attempts to shove a carrot up Farmer McGregor’s (Sam Neill) butt, so I’m not sure this movie is meant for kids either. Peter Rabbit is based on a series of children’s book by Beatrix Potter, books that are more yarns than actual stories. Potter’s books are almost, in a way, perfect for film. They are a series of wonderful images that tell us a great deal about the character, mood, and story.
Unfortunately for all involved, the writers Will Gluck and Rob Lieber have chosen to stuff Peter Rabbit with crass jokes, pop culture references that are already past their sell-by date, and no real clear explanation of how this universe works. Peter Rabbit is the type of movie that has a talking pig—a not at all surprising element in a talking animal movie. But what is surprising is that a kids movie in 2018 would feel compelled to throw out a “that’ll do pig.” See, inserting pop culture references to other films is tricky. There’s a danger you could inspire a fondness to go watch those movies instead. I wish I could have.
If that wasn’t enough, they’ve turned Peter Rabbit into an insufferable jerk. The modern day Peter Rabbit is now a distant cousin of Bugs Bunny, only they’ve ignored the primary rule Chuck Jones had for Bugs: he’s never the instigator. I’m not saying Peter’s hatred for farmer McGregor isn’t understandable. After all, McGregor killed Peter’s father and ate him in a pie. No one mourns McGregor’s death after he keels over from a heart attack moments before attempting to murder Peter.
But from the get go, we see Peter as nothing but someone who doesn’t like being told no. The only voice of authority or reason in Peter’s life is that of McGregor’s neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne). She’s a painter. Not a good one, all her paintings are horrible except the ones she does of her little furry friends. Those seem like something out of a Beatrix Potter book. (Hold on a minute! Her name is Bea…)
After McGregor bites the dust, his only living relative, a nephew in London named Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), inherits the farm. He moves in, decides to fix it up, sell it, and use the money to open up a toy store in direct competition with the toy store that fired him. Cue the mayhem and slapstick.
Peter Rabbit is flush with talented actors and actress, mainly as voices of varying animals. Except as talented as they are, they are given little to do and what little they are given to do comes across as flat. Peter Rabbit is a living treatise on the importance of voice actors and how they can deftly express so much with a single line. The movie wastes great actresses such as Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley as Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail. Had the script given them something to do then maybe they could have had more fun. As is, I doubt even voice actors could save whatever Peter Rabbit is. Part music video, part slapstick, and all irritating.
Gluck, who co-wrote as well as directed, wants to be clever without actually being clever. At one point, Peter realizes he has gone too far and consults his dead parents in the painting hung in Thomas’s living room. The narrator, also Margot Robbie, tells us “If this were a different movie then this scene would have gone like this…” and the painting comes to life as the ghosts of his dead parents console him. After the emotional moment passes, the narrator informs us that it is not that type of movie and then cuts to silence. The moment is never allowed to settle or resonate. Plus, it’s undercut by the movie giving us the actual emotional catharsis necessary but then acting as if it didn’t just happen.
Talking animal movies are dicey in the best of hands. Throughout most of Peter Rabbit, it’s assumed that Thomas and Bea are not really aware how intelligent the animals are. Though why they tend to ignore that the animals run around in jackets and pullovers is a little baffling. But this is a kids movie so we move on.
The feud between Thomas and Peter culminates with Peter blowing up his own own home, causing a massive tree to fall onto Bea’s house and destroying her studio. Thomas rightfully accuses Peter. So…is Thomas aware that Peter is sentient enough to operate explosives??
But then the rabbits talk to Thomas. If this was any movie other than Peter Rabbit this would be a daring move. Instead, it feels like a shallow, crass, and vulgar attempt at being cute. When the rabbits reveal their own culpability to Bea, she is stunned, and rightfully so. I mean, as Bea’s cab driver points out, “That’s a lot to process.” In any other movie, Bea’s response to both Peter and the cab driver would be hilarious.
But another movie would not have used up all our good will by this point. Other movies would not have made us sit through endless, smooth, neutered covers of nineties pop songs. A different movie would have chosen a different path than the odd, confusing-until-explained, somewhat bizarre love triangle between Thomas, Peter, and Bea. I can’t describe the potency of my sigh of relief when the movie explained Peter’s feelings for Bea were ‘motherly.’
That being said, Domhnall Glesson has a career in physical comedy. Hopefully next time his co-stars won’t be lazily designed computer generated rabbits. They look good, but they never feel like anything other than pixels. They don’t ever come alive and make us forget that we are watching animated pixels rather than ‘real’ animals.
There is so much to hate and so little to love about Peter Rabbit. I left the theater angry at the wasted time of my life I’ll never get back. I’ll say this much for Peter Rabbit though, it puts you in the mood for rabbit stew.