‘Peter Rabbit’ Lacks Charm of Beatrix Potter Books

Peter Rabbit Photo
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Rose Byrne plays Bea, a friendly woman who is like a mother to the rabbits.

“Peter Rabbit” is a 3D live-action/CGI-animated version movie based on Beatrix Potter's classic books that date back to the early 1900s. Critics contend that Potter’s stories were the first of their kind, as animal fable about anthropomorphic rabbits. Each story features realistic-looking rabbits that wear clothes, and walk and talk like human beings.

Today, anthropomorphic characters are nothing new, but 118 years ago, Beatrix Potter's stories (illustrated with hand-painted watercolor images) were praised as a triumph of fantasy and fact. The basic plot of the original stories is presented in this movie, but the innocence of the main character simply isn’t there. Peter Rabbit is presented as a manipulative, fast-talking and smart-aleck bunny. It’s different from the classic story about a sleepy little bunny who kisses his mom goodnight and enjoys listening to a bedtime story. Toward the end of the movie, Peter Rabbit experiences a change of heart but it’s too little, too late. The most redeeming parts of the film are the Potter’s watercolor illustrations, which are sprinkled into the story. The film is best suited for preschoolers and children in elementary school.

The story begins with mischievous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) who lives in a burrow with his animal friends. To survive, they steal vegetables out of the garden of Farmer McGregor (Sam Neill). The animals don’t like the farmer, because legend has it that he killed Peter Rabbit’s parents and made them into a meat pie.

Next door lives a friendly woman named Bea (Rose Byrne) who is like a mother to the rabbits. She is an artist who loves drawing and painting rabbits. One day, Farmer McGregor catches Peter Rabbit in the garden, but suddenly dies of a heart attack. That’s when Peter invites all his woodland friends to raid McGregor's house.

Meanwhile in London, Farmer McGregor's nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) works in the toy department of Harrod’s department store. Thomas receives a letter telling him that his uncle passed away and that he has inherited his estate. Thomas plans to restore McGregor’s farmhouse, so he can put it on the market and start his own toy store.

Upon arriving at McGregor’s farm, Thomas discovers that the animals have trashed the house and garden. He kicks out Peter Rabbit and his friends in an attempt to restore order. However, Thomas meets next-door neighbor Bea and instantly becomes enamored with her. Bea asks that he let the animals live in peace. Thomas agrees, but secretly continues to banish the animals from his property.

The animals declare war on Thomas and set up traps and other nuisances. Meanwhile, Thomas and Bea fall in love which causes Peter Rabbit to become jealous and scheme to ruin their relationship. Ultimately, it’s a showdown with Thomas versus Peter Rabbit and his animal friends.

Appropriateness for Children

“Peter Rabbit” is rated PG for some rude humor and action. There are several scenes that might be disturbing for children. For instance, Peter Rabbit deliberately shoves a carrot into a man’s rear end, as he is working in the garden. Also, the elderly Farmer McGregor is depicted as dying from a heart attack. He is shown falling to the ground with his eyes open. Peter Rabbit declares him dead after poking McGregor’s eye with a stick.

Another character, Thomas, is allergic to blueberries and is shown going into anaphylactic shock after being pelted with blueberries. He survives by self-medicating himself with epinephrine. Thomas is not shown to have any other ill effects after the epinephrine treatment. Viewers should note that in reality a person going into anaphylactic shock should be rushed to the nearest hospital immediately following epinephrine treatment. Of course, all of this is presented in a slapstick manner. Thomas is also electrocuted (again, treated as humorous) and has both hands stuck into snapping barbed animal traps. Thomas also steps on rakes and is hit in the face. There are also scenes where explosives are thrown at rabbits.

Final Take

The movie is mostly silly shenanigans and slapstick violence. These antics are played for laughs, but come across as mean-spirited. We witness many incidents that would be painful in real life, even resulting in death. Little ones may find the physical comedy to be more disturbing than funny.

It’s also troubling when Peter Rabbit and his animal friends trash the house, tracking in muddy footprints, spilling their drinks and throwing food everywhere. What kind of example is that for children? The original Peter Rabbit was polite and showed good manners. His charm came from being naïve and innocent, and not understanding how and why grown-ups did things.

In contrast, the movie’s Peter Rabbit is an expert at lame jokes and wise cracks. Toward the end of the movie, Peter has a change of heart and wants to make amends. It’s just not believable, after repeatedly being a sarcastic bunny who cares about no one but himself.

Actually, Thomas McGregor has my sympathy, having to clean up after the animals trashed his home. He is pelted, chased and attacked with weapons and traps. Thomas is initially selfish, but experiences a slight personal transformation as he falls in love with Bea. Truth be told, everyone behaves rather badly in this movie until there’s an apology at the end. Perhaps they do learn a few lessons about living at peace with each other, and getting along. It’s just that it’s too little, too late.

The only time the movie comes close to resembling Beatrice Potter's books is when it briefly shows hand-drawn animated sequences inspired by Potter's original artwork. For me, this was the best part of the movie.

Writer Nicky VanValkenburgh welcomes your feedback at nickyv@bellsouth.net.