Not all classic storybook characters can receive as faithful and charming an adaptation as Paddington Bear. Some of them receive warped and contorted translations, reworked to be more hip and happening with today’s kids. This is sadly the case with Peter Rabbit, a film that establishes early on that it isn’t going to be your daddy’s version of the story. This is the loud, obnoxious, and snarky interpretation that is built to be more cynical than sincere.
The film begins with the familiar story elements, albeit with lame quips and the familiar modern tunes, but there’s something amiss. Peter (James Corden), the mischievous rabbit with the blue jacket, steals from the garden of old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill). He has easily been able to convince his sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), to join him in pilfering vegetables since their parents are now dead—no parents, no rules. There’s a tubby cousin, Benjamin (Colin Moody), but he can’t do much as the only voice of reason. And so the battle of rabbits versus McGregor rages on, with the siblings trying to avoid his sight, his traps, and his sharp hoe.
Oh, but a story of survival for rabbits and trying to live with a bitter gardener wouldn’t be convoluted enough. Preventing Peter from losing his life and his jacket is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne), an artist far too forgiving of rabbits eating up a garden. But wait—Bea also seems to feed the rabbits, in addition to letting them come inside her house on rainy days. Why would Peter and his siblings even bother risking McGregor’s garden, full of traps, when they could easily convince the kind woman next door to keep them warm and fed? I guess Peter has to get his thrills somewhere.
And then the unfortunate happens: McGregor has a heart attack and dies in his garden. Does Peter feel bad about watching this old-timer die? Not a chance. He not only celebrates his death with a triumphant cheer but also raids McGregor’s house with his animal friends and trashes the place with a giant party. How uproarious! But the farmer isn’t the last of the McGregor line. His nephew, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), inherits the estate. Obsessed with cleanliness and moving up in business, Tom McGregor wants to sell the house, so he keeps the interior immaculate and the garden free of vermin. War never changes.
But since this McGregor is more handsome and can put on a charm when at peace, Bea takes great interest in him, and a romance begins to bloom. Peter’s response to this development? Kill Tom. This is not an embellishment based on his violent traps. Peter doesn’t want Tom to merely leave the pleasant cottage area; he actually wants him dead. This becomes especially uncomfortable in the scene in which Tom is pelted by blackberries, which he is allergic to, and the rabbits intentionally shoot one into his mouth. Tom collapses to the ground, choking and turning red, and stabs himself in the leg with an EpiPen. This contrasts greatly with an earlier scene where Peter learns of Tom’s allergy, mocks it, and pulls back to break the fourth wall to state that there’s nothing wrong with these medical conditions. Uh-huh. Just because the script makes a preemptive apology for the scenes that follow doesn’t make them any better.
Much like Peter’s thieving tendencies, this story never works for any of its slapstick laughs or sappy drama. This mostly stems from Peter being an incredibly unlikable character—the movie wants us to accept him as a goofy rebel with a troubled past but never builds him up as anything more than a violent and psychopathic jerk that wants to kill a human for his garden. No, wait, he’s also seeking revenge for his father (who was killed by McGregor) and protecting Bea (whom he sees as his mother figure). Would you imagine that Peter spells out this mindset almost word for word? I still can’t believe the script grew this lazy, pointing out Peter’s character flaws by literally stating the words “character flaws” multiple times. These are only a few of the film’s lacking attempts at breaking the fourth wall and subverting storybook convention. Sorry, movie, but you don’t get to mock convention when you’re already adhering to the so-called hipness of modern animated films with pop-music insertion, pointless dance numbers, tiresome references, and an embarrassing rap song with lyrics written specifically for this film.
Do I even need to say at this point that the film bears little to no relation in story to Beatrix Potter’s classic stories? It takes her beloved source material and runs over all its characters and themes with the truck of trendiness. And did it even need all this junk attached to it for kids to dig the story? A few weeks ago, I read my daughter the classic tale of Peter Rabbit as a bedtime story, and she was very much engaged with it. When she saw the film, on the other hand, she was lukewarm on its content, and the rest of the children in the audience grew antsy and whiny. Compare that with the screening of Paddington 2 we attended, where every kid in the theater was completely captivated and hardly made a peep because they were so into the film.
The great movies for kids are the ones that stick with them through likeable characters and an engaging story—not a dance number, a slapstick sequence, or a fart joke. All of that extra stuff is fluff to cover for the fact that Peter Rabbit’s “hip” theatrical outing is a garden of potential that’s blighted with rot.