Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

February 14, 2018

Sony Turned Peter Rabbit into a Remorseless Killer

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Most of us grew up with Beatrix Potter’s stories, the most famous among them being her debut work The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1902. It’s a charming little morality tale about a young rabbit warned by his mother to not raid a farmer’s garden. He does so and lands himself in trouble. It may not be the headiest of literature, but it’s a cultural touchstone.

Three years ago, the Sony email hacks revealed that they were planning on bringing Beatrix Potter’s beloved character to the big screen. Sure enough, the film has finally landed in theaters — and something’s been lost in translation along the way. Sony Animation’s Peter Rabbit has some genuinely good elements, but turns its main character into an appalling monstrosity.

The movie begins with Peter Rabbit, voiced by James Corden, rushing to Old Man McGregor’s garden for a perilous vegetable raid. At least, it is perilous… until McGregor dies of a heart attack. Suddenly the garden and the house are left unguarded, and the entire animal community rejoices. Their celebration gets cut short, though, by the arrival of Thomas McGregor, the Old Man’s nephew, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Thomas intends to sell the property, and he meets his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), who stands up for the rabbits. The two end up developing a relationship, but Peter resents this. As a result, he declares war on Thomas, trying to drive him away at all costs.

I’ll start with what I liked about the film. One of its best accomplishments was the design and animation of the woodland animals. The Peter Rabbit we see on screen definitely looks the part. Translating drawings into CGI can be tricky, but the animators find the right balance between real animals and anthropomorphism, making the characters look appealing. They work the animation well enough to create a convincing illusion.

I also liked the human characters. Domhnall Gleeson as Thomas McGregor is hands-down the best part of this movie. At first I rolled my eyes at his character. An upscale professional who needs to reconnect with what’s important? We’ve seen that before. They take it in an interesting direction, however. He’s not simply pursuing money — he outright says that he loves his work because he gets to help people. And when he has trouble at work, it’s relatable: he gets passed over for a promotion so it can go the boss’s nephew. Thomas is a refreshingly sympathetic character, a bit unhinged but delightfully so. Even the romance he shares with Bea (because of course there needs to be a romance) actually plays off well. Rose Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson have nice chemistry. They care about each other and learn from one another. As far as romances thrown in to meet a formula, this one actually works.

This movie has a glaring flaw, however. A flaw so great that it cripples the entire effort, and a flaw that can be found in the title itself. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit was young and mischievous. He wanted to get some vegetables, ran into trouble, and got sent to bed without supper. Sony Animation’s Peter Rabbit is callous and downright sadistic. When Old Man McGregor dies and is taken away, what’s the very first thing Peter does? Throw a wild party, frat house style, celebrating the old man’s death. The real concern begins, though, when Thomas arrives. Sure, he and the rabbits get into a couple of fights over garden excursions, and he talks about sending the exterminator on them. There’s even one point where Thomas captures one and drives to a bridge with the intent to throw him off… but he second-guesses himself. It’s clear he doesn’t have the heart to kill them. He’s all talk, but little bite.

I establish this here, and I elaborated on how sympathetic Thomas’ character is, because Peter tries to outright murder him. At one point the rabbits electrify all the metal in his house. After several severe shocks, Thomas collapses after climbing and falling from the roof. They poke at him, declare him dead and proceed to celebrate. When he of course survives, the rabbits proceed to try to poison him. It’s established that McGregor is allergic to raspberries (which is followed by a mini-rant from Peter about how “People are allergic to EVERYTHING these days!”). So, later on, they pelt him with raspberries, trying to get one in his mouth — and they succeed. Thomas only survives because he injects himself with his EpiPen. The anaphylactic shock hits and briefly leaves him unconscious. In that time he spends on the ground, the rabbits again applaud his death.

What is all this for? Why these repeated attempts against McGregor’s life? At that point, it’s not about the garden. It’s about Bea. Peter’s jealousy over McGregor’s relationship with Bea leads him to attack McGregor, even when the guy is minding his own business. So many times, Peter provokes the conflict, and uses cruel and horrific methods. I didn’t even mention the elaborate setup that gets concocted with bear traps, rakes and a wheelbarrow down the staircase. Heck, the movie itself acknowledges the problem. At one point McGregor pins down Peter, and through a pained voice shrieks, “I’m not a bad guy! You just keep pushing and pushing and pushing me!”

Recognizing the problem does not fix it, though. At the end, when Peter finally apologizes to everyone for his mistakes, it feels too little and too late. Plus, the apology only comes when Bea is about to leave, so it still feels self-serving. He comes across not as a flawed hero, but an outright villain. So when McGregor snaps and starts throwing dynamite around the garden, you can guess who I was rooting for.

The movie’s humor doesn’t help. A couple lines here and there got a laugh from me, but otherwise it feels tiring. About five minutes into the movie, Peter stuffs a carrot up Old Man McGregor’s butt — that sets the tone for most of the film. You have man-butt jokes, you have rabbit nipple jokes, you have birds rapping along to a rendition of “Remember the Name.” The movie also tries to market a kind of self-referential humor:

“It’s my character flaw!”

“This isn’t that kind of story!”

“Don’t want any angry letters!” *looks at audience*

It grows tiring quickly. Even jokes that manage to be funny ramble on too long to deliver a punch. Besides the occasional laugh, I mostly sat quiet while kids around me giggled at every naughty line.

Peter Rabbit was, at once, better and worse than I expected. Better, because on a technical aspect the movie is solid. Animation is good and, again, Domhnall Gleeson shines. At the same time, it’s still worse than I anticipated. I was afraid of an irreverent and crass Peter; I got an irreverent and crass Peter who attempts first-degree murder. Twice. This could have been an above-average family movie, and it was within reach. Unfortunately the humor only appeals to kids, and with such a sadistic tone I wouldn’t let kids watch it! It’s not worth a movie ticket, it’s not worth getting mad over, it’s worth a shrug. If even that.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com.