I know the story of Peter Rabbit, the blue-jacket wearing rabbit that didn’t listen to his mother and was almost killed by Mr. McGregor for entering his garden. Ah, but this isn’t that same Beatrix Potter tale. Some executive or producer thought that classic book was too old and lame to be hip with today’s kids. Today’s Peter Rabbit needs to be a character that is rude, crude, and condescendingly snarky with his slapstick battles against McGregor set to the tune of today’s top radio music. Also, he kills people.
At first, the story seems familiar, but with odd altercations that mount up as odd and terrible choices. Peter (James Corden) convinces his sisters of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail to sneak into the garden of Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and steal his vegetables. But won’t Peter’s mother be angry with all of them? Don’t worry – she’s dead. The bout of man versus rabbit takes place and soon nears the expected climax of Peter’s coat being caught. In the books, he would narrowly escape and go to bed sick, having learned a lesson about disobeying. But not in this movie! McGreggor’s next door neighbor is the sweet and naive Bea (Rose Byrne), an artist that loves bunnies so much she’ll not only rescue the rabbits from McGregor’s garden but keep them warm and well fed at her place. Bea, who I hope is not meant to represent Beatrix Potter, brushes off Peter’s antics as just rabbits being rabbits. That is until all their pestering of McGreggor causes him to have a heart attack and die. Don’t worry, kids – he made bad lifestyle choices so he deserved to die.
How does Peter take McGregor’s death? With a party of course! He’s been striving for the easy life this whole time and now that McGregor is out of the picture, he hosts a party to trash his place. What a rascally rabbit, that Peter; killing gardeners and trashing their place. We haven’t even gotten to the central conflict yet and I already hate this CGI bunny with a passion.
In comes the next McGreggor (Domhnall Gleeson), bent on fixing up the house and selling it off. Peter could just wait it out for McGregor to sell or leave the house, but, no, another McGreggor must die, especially since this one fancies Bea. There’s a pathos to Peter’s psychopathic behavior, viewing Bea as his own parental figure he doesn’t want to lose, but who gives a crap? Who really cares about Peter when he has become such a possessive jerk that is willing to go so far as electrocution, kicking, and ensnaring McGregor in clasping traps. Even Peter’s cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) points out multiple times that Peter has a deep psychological problem, but Peter won’t listen. He’s having too much fun pelting McGregor in the testicles.
And then comes the most controversial scene of the film where I all but checked out. Peter makes a discovery that McGregor is allergic to blackberries. This launches Peter into a rant about everyone these days seems to have an allergy to something and it’s annoying. Not unexpected; he’s such an unlikable windbag by this point in the film this sort of talk seems par for the course. But then Peter pulls back and acknowledges that allergies are something to be taken seriously, winking at the camera with the line “Wouldn’t want to get any letters.” That scene seemed so odd, like a dud of an Animaniacs style attempt at breaking the fourth wall. But then his apology makes sense in the following scene where Peter and his sisters launch blackberries at McGreggor until he swallows one and collapses on the ground in shock. His face turns red and he injects himself with an EpiPen, just before dying. This was not an accident. Peter is not aloof about death. He knows what he is doing. He wants to kill McGreggor.
Sure, I’ve heard all the comments and claims that complaining about the allergy bullying scene may make me overly sensitive. The biggest comparison I’ve heard is that if you’re appalled by this scene, you should also be appalled by the violence in Looney Tunes. Not true; Looney Tunes establishes in its cartoonish world that death isn’t a real thing. When a piece of dynamite explodes in Elmer Fudd’s face, he doesn’t spend the next scene going to the burn ward; he wipes off the soot and continues the chase. Peter Rabbit begins with the death of one McGregor, making the new McGreggor’s potential to die from an allergic reaction all the more real. And the fact that Peter is counting on this makes it all the viler.
There’s not much else worth talking about. There’s a shameless plug for London sights, a mildly amusing play on the run-to-your-love montage, and a few look-look gags on the animals wearing clothes that don’t go much of anywhere. Had Peter been charming, this film could have been decent or even great. Paddington 2 proved last month that storybook characters don’t need to be hip and cynical to be appealing to kids. If there is any heart in the madness that is Peter Rabbit, it’s buried deep under miles and miles of pop songs of the day, lackluster references, pointless dance numbers, mean slapstick, and tired tropes. It’s yet another case of a short story that should have remained short.