It’s not like older stories haven’t been given good latter-day updates or anything. Look at how 10 Things I Hate About You – a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – has fared with audiences, and Rent’s take on Giacomo Puccini’s La bohéme has ensconced itself into the hearts and minds of theatergoers everywhere. It’s because these remakes had at least a certain modicum of respect for their source material and gave today’s viewers a reason to make space in their souls for their characters and stories.
Peter Rabbit scribes Ron Lieber and Will Gluck (who also directs) take the barest of story from the original – the conflict between Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) – and inject the rest with mindless revenge action. Picture a feature-length version of the last twenty minutes of 1990’s Home Alone, where a little boy is setting off traps and devices to cause ridiculous bodily harm to a pair of thieves; for all intents and purposes, this is Peter Rabbit in a nutshell.
In a weird way, the film also reeks of overentitlement. Yes, nature belongs to nature, but in this film, basic property rights are expected to be voided by the animal-loving Bea (Rose Byrne) because she feels her rabbits – Peter, his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and their cousin Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas) – deserve to run wherever and eat whatever they want. And where they want to run and what they want to eat is in Mr. McGregor’s carefully-tended garden.
Picking up where Ms. Potter’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit left off, we start our film with – yup – a buttcrack joke, the likes and length of which I can’t remember seeing in a film meant for children. It comes at Mr. McGregor’s expense, as he’s bending over while gardening, and Peter decides it’d be great fun to stick a carrot in there.
Aaaaaaaand this is what children’s entertainment has come to, ladies and gentlemen.
I’m far from a prude, but this kind of thing would probably feel more at home in a PG-13 film starring Jack Black or Jason Mewes.
Of course, Mr. McGregor isn’t meant to last long in a film which changes pop songs on its soundtrack every few minutes like a five-year-old on a radio dial. He’s too old to be any fun, so what’s a film to do? Replace him with distant relative Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) as the villain who will also serve as Bea’s love interest and the guy who can physically take all of the horrible punishments Peter and his family are about to give him.
Please understand: the “too old to be any fun” statement above is not meant to be ageist. Rather, it’s meant to point out the ageism inherent in the film. There are almost no actors past 39 with significant screen time in the film, with the veteran actors – Sam Neill, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Bryan Brown (hooray!), and Rachel Ward – relegated to buffoonery or minimal voice roles.
Speaking of the voice roles, they’re the only reason this movie gets off the ground at all. With Corden, Ridley, Robbie, Debicki, Lucas, and Sia (playing an elderly hedgehog) giving so much gusto to their performances, it’s a shame the script and story can’t handle them. Ridley is a delight as the youngest of the Rabbit family, and Debicki balances Ridley well on the manic-versus-grounded scale. Corden is rock-solid as this film’s lead, using his trademark mix of being engaging, endearing, and self-deprecating.
But this film seems to have been written for – and actually stands in as a metaphor for – a generation which likes wild, in-your-face, and outrageous action, never minding the consequences or who gets hurt. Its thrown-in film-ending moral of putting differences aside and working together comes way too late to matter, and it falls completely flat when you consider what’s come before it. After watching electrocutions, betrayals, explosions with intent to murder, homewrecking, and a totally false-feeling love story, we’re supposed to believe all can be put right with a few words? Please.
Originally, I was supposed to take my 7-year-old with me to our press screening; upon further reflection, I’m glad I didn’t. This film, while cute and funny in places and well-animated, is an empty structure filled with bland sight gags and idiotic humor. In no way does it reflect any of the heart and soul of its source material, and its mean, me-first vibe isn’t a value I’d like to pass onto my kid. Yes, I get and enjoy slapstick humor and physical comedy, but wrapping it in Peter Rabbit’s clothing is a mismatch.
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