Let’s get one thing out of the way: Sony Pictures’ big screen adaptation of Peter Rabbit is not going to please any devotees of Beatrix Potter. That much was made clear as soon as the first trailer dropped, which brought widespread ire from critics and fans alike, including The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage, who remarked, “There’s something genuinely harrowing about the sight of… gentle, Edwardian Peter Rabbit… grabbing a pile of lettuce leaves and making it rain like a banker in a strip club.” It’s true, Peter’s innocence is gone, but the film isn’t quite as bad as one may fear.
Beatrix Potter, a revered amateur mycologist who studied fungi in late nineteenth-century London, first dipped her hand into children’s literature when she illustrated the first incarnation of Peter Rabbit for a sick 5-year-old little girl. Potter found a love for writing children’s stories, and successfully published The Tale of Peter Rabbit for the wider public in 1902, going on to write and illustrate a total of 30 books centered on Peter and other animal characters. In 1938, Walt Disney approached Potter to adapt the story to film, but she vehemently refused his offer.
To say that Potter would have condemned the 2018 feature adaptation of her endearing character is an understatement. The tasteful watercolor imagery of Potter’s beloved classic is all but gone, and replaced with farcical Looney Toon-like mischief, fart jokes, and a naughty, conniving rascal of a title character. This iteration of Peter Rabbit mostly concerns itself with rapid-fire gags to ensure the little tikes never miss a moment, hoping to ensure all their parents’ quarters find their way to the theater. But even with all these violations, Peter Rabbit manages to entertain.
Peter Rabbit, voiced here by James Corden of The Late Show, lives beneath a tree with his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) just outside the garden of mean old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill – look closely or you’ll miss him). Contrary to the advice of all the other animals, and despite the fact that McGregor killed and ate his parents, Peter still persists at enlisting his cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody) into schemes stealing veggies from the old man’s garden. During one such mission, McGregor suddenly dies of a heart attack.
In comes the hotheaded and psychologically disturbed great-nephew, Domhnall Gleeson as former toy store manager Thomas McGregor. Thomas shares his great-uncle’s rancor toward wildlife, and opens up an all-out war with the local animals when he walks in to find they have taken over the house. Plenty of hi-jinks and comic violence ensue, but a wrinkle in the narrative threatens to upend the positions of both Peter and McGregor in the conflict: Thomas is falling in love with Bea (Rose Byrne), his neighbor, and an affectionate ally for all animals, big and small.
This latest interpretation of Peter Rabbit is an undeniable affront to purists, but Sony Pictures Animation still arranges to dangle a carrot or two for Potter admirers, as well as for those of us who may feel robbed of childhood nostalgia. Rose Byrne’s character Bea is a not-so subtle homage to Potter, an artist and nature-lover with some paintings a little more-than reminiscent of Potter’s classic illustrations. In addition, a traditionally animated sequence beautifully unveils the tragic backstory of Peter, as well as his sisters, with a lovely, sophisticated watercolor polish.
Potter’s elegant style makes a return during the final credits, but it’s a shame the rest of the film couldn’t have been produced in this manner. It’s more than unfortunate that the movie is styled to pander to the tastes of the modern diaper graduate, but what’s truly surprising is that the cast and filmmakers manage to utilize the misguided template for some truly enjoyable fare. Directed by comedy veteran Will Gluck (Easy A, About Last Night, 2014’s Annie) Peter Rabbit exhibits both the comic strengths and the commercial inclinations of the man behind the helm.
The rowdy critters are exhausting at times, but the film offers some saving grace in the form of a hilarious performance from Domhnall Gleeson. Much of the rabbit dialogue reeks of desperate puns and pop culture references, but Gleeson’s frenzied rage dominates in the slapstick arena, serving up some surefire gut-busters. Rose Byrne glows as Bea, and her romantic subplot with Thomas endures as one of the highlights of the film. However, it is completely unbelievable that she remains oblivious to the chaos and mayhem taking place with her beloved furry friends.
The film attempts to invoke some sympathy for the bunnies when referencing the loss of Peter’s parents, but this mostly resonates as tonally inconsistent and bizarre, considering he makes a life of doing the one thing that rendered them orphans. Peter Rabbit’s first feature-length adaptation is sure to appall Potter disciples, but there are more nods to the source material here than one would expect. If you’re looking for a more faithful treatment of the classic books, check out BBC’s animated series. Otherwise, you might be surprised by how fun this movie can be.