Director: Will Gluck
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Sam Neill, the voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Sia, Fayssal Bazzi
MPAA Rating: (for some rude humor and action)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 2/9/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 8, 2018
Little Peter Rabbit wasn't right to go into the farmer's garden, and he suffered the consequences. That's one way of looking at Beatrix Potter's story about the rebellious rabbit, who stuffs himself with lettuce and carrots, is almost captured and cooked into a pie by the farmer, and ends up with a stomachache for all of his troubles. It's a fairly simple lesson for kids: Don't go where you're not supposed to, and don't do what you're told not to do. Peter Rabbit may be a wildly unfaithful adaptation of Potter's stories, but the film veers from its source material's innocent tone and simplistic morals for a good reason. It's not just Peter who's wrong. The farmer is, too.
Kids know that simple fact, simply because the farmer baked Peter's father into a pie and, now, the mean, old man wants to do the same thing to poor Peter, who simply wants to eat a good meal. In Potter's view, the farmer is the antagonist, but he's not the villain, since he's just trying to protect his garden. Instinctively, kids see the farmer as a bad guy, and in a way, Peter Rabbit might be a child's first introduction to the concept of an antihero. He's a cute little bunny, which makes him a likeable protagonist, but he also disobeys his mother, steals a bunch of food, and gets away with it all with only minor consequences.
Kids don't care: Peter is a cute bunny, and the farmer wants to kill him. Those are the things they'll take away from the story.
Rob Lieber's screenplay knows this fact, and he does away with the rabbit-farmer dynamic almost immediately. The prologue of the film follows the basic outline of Potter's 1902 story pretty closely. Peter (voice of James Corden), who—like the rest of the animal characters here—is represented as a realistic computer-generated character, goes looking for food in Old Mr. McGregor's (a virtually unrecognizable Sam Neill) garden. Everything follows the story: Peter is nearly caught, loses his trademark blue jacket, and escapes by a tuft of his fur.
That's where Potter's story ends, and it's also where the film's similarities to the source material end. The film's story continues: Looking to retrieve his coat, Peter returns and is nabbed by McGregor. Holding the rabbit in his hand and threatening to bake the bunny for his supper, the old farmer has a heart attack and falls dead on the spot.
It's an unflattering end to the farmer, but surely no kids in the audience will shed a tear for the grumpy, old man who was willing to turn the cute rabbit into dinner. The adults might see it a different way, especially since Peter and his fellow animals are so flippant about the man's death. The likely reaction from kids is the more appropriate one: This isn't the death of a man so much as it is the death of the idea behind Potter's story.
The film gives us a new farmer in the form of McGregor's great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), a meticulous manager at a toy store in London who inherits his great-uncle's country manor. At first, things seem to be heading down a familiar path: Thomas barricades the garden and goes to town to buy electrified fencing, traps, and explosives to prevent the possibility of a wildlife invasion in his garden.
Peter remains insistent on finding a way to get the food there, and the conflict results in a lot of hijinks. Those who felt icky about the way the old farmer was dispensed from the story will likely find more to be horrified about here. Animals and humans are repeatedly shocked by the electricity flowing through crossed wires, as Peter and his pals sabotage the country house to put an end to the new farmer. It would be horrifying, if not for how firmly director Will Gluck establishes the film's cartoon logic. Thomas isn't just shocked by touching an electrified doorknob. He's sent flying across the room, before standing up and touching the doorknob again. Part of the logic of cartoons is that characters will do an action, regardless of the consequences, as many times as it remains funny. That's when they change strategy, only to suffer the same fate.
If this logic seems cruel, it is—but only if we accept that this is the real world and not a cartoon that just happens to look realistic. The film constantly points out its own inconsistencies—between the way the computer-generated characters look and how they behave. They look real enough, but they're most definitively not real.
Animals don't talk, of course. They don't wear clothes of their own volition, and they most certainly do not have moments of grave doubt about the basic goodness of their actions. Those moments are what Peter eventually has as he injures Thomas and finds himself in trouble with the farmer's good-natured neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), who wants Thomas to open up his garden for the animals and cares for the rabbits as if they were her beloved pets. She falls for the slightly-less-grumpy city boy-turned-farmer, and most of Peter's attacks on Thomas stem from his belief that's he's losing her affection (It would be nice if Bea were more than object for the farmer and the rabbit).
All of this is cute and funny, and while the film possesses something of a mean streak, it's all in the name of comedy and of arriving at a fairly decent lesson. As in Potter's story, the moral of Peter Rabbit is that Peter is wrong, but Lieber and Gluck arrive there by breaking down the conflict between the bunny and the farmer as one of equal wrongness.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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