Months ago, I wrote a piece on this film without having seen it. I compared Sony’s millennial frat house to Beatrix Potter’s Edwardian tea party from the trailer alone. I recalled sitting on my mother’s lap with those crisp watercolors and falling asleep to them. I won’t do that again. In fact, that other piece exorcised those feelings for this reason: films should stand in their own right. If all we do is repaint the same images, then we’ll never grow up. I knew I couldn’t watch this film without growing up, and I needed that other piece to give a little boy who really used to see the world in watercolors a little closure.
Now may I say something with impunity? Peter Rabbit (2018) is awkward. It’s a heap of a film, and not at all because it’s different. Even the best satire is stuffed with sincerity, like a rabbit full of radishes he’s insisting just up and disappeared. Without it, there’s nothing but smugness, like the goal was to make the best Alvin and the Chipmunks film ever. Well, they did it.
It isn't unpretty; it doesn't lack in attempts to elevate its self-assigned junkiness. The weird part is that at some point it stops acting out and seems to mirage sincerity, like it knows it wants some but doesn’t want anyone to find out. (Danny Zuko had this problem when he blew off Sandy Dee cause his mates would make fun of him if he liked her. Who is Sony trying to impress?) Bea (Rose Byrne) insists when she saves the mischievous rabbits from the evil farmer McGregor (briefly played by an unrecognizable Sam Neill) that you can’t change their nature. Well that would work quite well in a Potter story full of animals. But this movie works overtime to make them seem like hormonal college nuts. They’re natural only as assholes. My mom teaches a history class that has a lesson about due process where the kids play judge and jury at a trial for various fairytale characters (she’s awesome, if you can’t tell). Unthinkably, the charges against McGregor of murdering bunnies in this version would easily be dropped. It really is self-defense.
That pretty much demolishes the foundation of those old stories we’re not going to talk about. In its place there’s a lot of ambiguous conservation-talk, as Bea insists that wildlife belongs in your house and on your lawn and in your refrigerator because they were here first. She's persistently airheaded, like someone talking matter-of-factly about the earth being 6,000 years old. “We all share our land around here,” she swoons. Well, where’s her garden to be trashed at the whim of a rabbit’s “nature?” This is something that would work so much better if the animals weren’t jerks. They torture McGregor to an inch of his life, even sending him into anaphylactic shock by forcing him to eat something he’s allergic to with the intention of killing him. Bea seems like a laconic hippie defending them, insisting that they’re perfectly normal rabbits who aren’t capable of acting outside their nature. I guess she just ignores the overcoats?
Okay, everyone does come around at the end. It’s surprisingly cheery, and even self-critical. But getting your tooth crowned hurts even if it stops hurting when it’s over. Ending with Peter’s humility would be a better touch if it didn’t seem like we were supposed to take sadistic enjoyment out of his hubris up until then. I really felt like I was on the crotchety farmer’s side in this film.
That’s because with the young McGregor (Downhall Gleeson), the film makes a crucial error. They set him up as an obsessive with high standards of conduct and cleanliness. The error is that they set him up. He’s passed over for a promotion because he’s not the son of someone important. He really does deserve it. He’s uptight and shrilly, one of those people where the air never tastes quite ripe to them. But he might seem like favorable company if you’re one of those people Sony can’t conceive of, who’s never played beer pong or contracted even one STD. Evil people are always so tidy. Potter was too, if you’ll recall.
All this makes sense in the end because the farmer and the rabbits come together over mutual pettiness. But the journey to it is not comfortable or calm. It’s hard to enjoy watching cartoons blow each other up, and it’s even harder to do so while taking Elmer Fudd’s side.
Yet, this is not the least funny film I’ve ever seen. It has a smack of nature’s wit, and a lot of puns on filmmaking itself (this is more of a Bugs Bunny gag, but I don’t suppose integrity could still be an issue at this point). I like the rooster, shocked that the sun comes back every morning, recounting all the eggs he’s “fertilized.” Rather than being the most predictable film imaginable it at least predicts and subverts that film with itself. I just wish it didn’t slur self-confidently about it all the time. The film will compliment its “perfectly crafted sequences” or notice its own “character flaws.” Performing these subversions is inspired; talking about them is masturbation. At one point, Peter looks right at the camera after ranting that everyone these days is so allergic to everything, like it’s a standup bit. “I wouldn’t want to get any letters,” he says. Well, he did, if you didn’t hear.
Despite the fact that the jokes don’t reach The Emoji Movie levels of obvious, the film has an awkward habit of repeating them immediately 2-3 times for each instance. Disney cartoons used to do this and I assumed it was because the medium was new and people had longer attention spans. In the case of Peter Rabbit, I imagine Sony just thinks our comprehension is low. It acts like it’s just trying to be helpful, though not in Paddington’s gentlemanly way; it’s more like a friendly frat brother helping you through the hazing. I doubt it needs mentioning, but those Paddington films are more like the stories that this one can’t bring itself to take too seriously. Bea insists that “the country is calming,” but after so many crotch-shots and explosions, who would agree with her? The bustling big city is more calming in Paddington, just because of the kind of people who live there. Peter Rabbit is aggressive and disarming for the same reason.
No part of it is more aggressive than the soundtrack. British rock plays when the critters trash the house, reggae plays over the credits. Not a second of this film feels rural because of it. It’s debilitating. I had expected the voice actors to annoy me, but even if Peter Rabbit isn’t “supposed” to be a smarmy talk-show host, this one is, and James Corden plays him energetically. Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and Margot Robbie enliven the little crop-top bunny sisters. It’s all fine. Then the music starts playing (and there’s a lot of it – tracks collide end-to-end). Any teen would be thrilled to have this soundtrack play over their graduation slideshow. That’s not what we go to the country for. And again – this is the main trait I’m discovering of all Sony films these days – the smug acknowledgement of the style is worse than the style itself. Even while the music is ejaculating confetti and beer and sunshine, Peter Rabbit will remind you by stating it outright, how much you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself.
Here’s a moment of visionary awkwardness. Bea looks at the paintings she does in her spare time, terrible blushing splotches of formless color. And then she refers us to the ones she does for fun: life-size prints of the original “Peter Rabbit” watercolors. “Oh, but that’s not my real work,” she says. What does she mean by this? That people don’t appreciate genuine work for children anymore, and demand trendy pop songs in place of real feelings? I suppose that’s true, but Paddington could have said this of Peter Rabbit. Evidently, Sony couldn’t work up the nerve to praise the work it was smearing, and wanted to make sure that we knew it thought about it. Well, you wouldn’t pray to a shrine you desecrated, now would you?
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Beatrix Potter (characters)
|Peter Rabbit||James Corden|
|Thomas McGregor||Domhnall Gleeson|
|Benjamin Bunny||Colin Moody|