The Fault in Our Selves: Peter Rabbit and the Innocence Problem

Peter Rabbit – gentle, laconic Peter Rabbit – was not a rabbit of action. If he had been, then inspired by him I might have grown up to be a foreman or an engineer, someplace where I could catch rivets and sand boards and yell till my neck veins popped out. Instead, Peter warmed his velvet haunches by fireside, tried to keep his brass-buttoned coat and loafers clean, ate too much but apologized just enough. I saw him do this, with a face buried in a book whose glossy watercolors were broader than my own wide-eyes could take in at once. So I became a writer instead. He is one of those figures that makes the lifetimes ago in which I was a sprig on my mother’s comforting lap seem, sometimes, on just a particular kind of rainy day when the world seems to be taking a break from being an unpleasant place, like they have lasted me forever. Sometimes I take these feelings from my pocket and roll them around in my anxious brain, just to remember that there’s a less industrial life somewhere, still waiting by its fireside for us to come and visit when we feel up to believing in it. I bet its fireplace is still lit, and I bet the kettle’s on, waiting for company.

Sony Pictures Animation did not intend to adapt or acknowledge what makes Peter Rabbit grand when they pulverized him with cliché for their new Peter Rabbit film, which I have not seen. Even at this safe distance, I have never seen a property so aggressively unkind to itself, like it could be anything in the world so long as it isn’t likeable. I could not possibly add new information to this aspect of the discussion – its toxic relationship to its source material – so I will merely summarize it with an image quote: the sight of my tender Edwardian friend blathering like a talk show host, tossing lettuce leaves from a fence post like a strip-club banker, and twerking his cotton-tail to a millennial self-right tune. It self-rights so hard it’s a pose of self-contempt. Author Beatrix Potter refused to let Disney adapt The Tale of Peter Rabbit because she thought he would make it too glitzy. Sony’s film is an historical and artistic atrocity that would have made her, I will say without the comforting blanket of sarcasm, deeply and utterly cry.

Since anyone can see that, I assume that Sony could too – I will not give the shysters the benefit of my doubt in their competence at compressing other people’s work into trash. This is bigger than Peter Rabbit, whose honor I hope I have justly defended with the above passages and with my refusal to see his latest film. It’s not so important that someone ruined a beloved property, which is happening almost without pause in today’s Hollywood. What is important in this case is that it was done on purpose.

I want to pique the imagination that Sony doesn’t believe you have anymore. Try to concoct a script for the boardroom meeting – I mean really, realistically imagine this – that could possibly have resulted in Peter Rabbit 2018. In 2014, Beatrix Potter’s works defaulted into the public domain. Perhaps the meeting started with a brainstorming Google search?

“What can we make for free?” Type, type, type.
“What about Peter Rabbit?”
“That’s that bunny book, right?”
“Dude, what if we made a movie about a party animal, who was actually an animal?” Fist-bump.
“He’s a total rascal rabbit!”
“No, that was Bugs Bunny. Peter Rabbit’s the cute one.”
“Eh, whatever. Tag-line achieved!”
“But how do we make him cool, you know, like us?”
“Someone get the big book of funny things.”
“Careful, it’s weathered.”
“Dude, what did you just say, ‘weathered?’ Seriously? What are you, like my grandma?”
“Shit I don’t know man I’m still hammered from last night just get out the fucking book.”
“Here we go. ‘Slow-motion explosions, party scene, dance scene, sarcastic narrator, screaming at someone screaming, deer in the headlights, twerking.’”
“Let’s do all of them twice and we’ll have time left for outtakes.”
“Dude filmmaking is hard. Where do we keep the cocaine?”
“In the Winnie the Pooh cookie jar, idiot.”

I’m not being sarcastic – I’m being optimistic. I’m suggesting that these content-creators were not heinous in their defilement of taste and class, but just cogs in a tasteless machine. The only other option is that a bunch of world-weathered crones sat hunched over their boardroom table gnawing bunny bones and counting down to the next interval of their kidney medication, and consciously concocted a way to ruin a beloved children’s story because a recent poll told them cute was out and frat parties were in. Or perhaps they did it just because people might enjoy something beautiful, and after their last two marriages enough was enough – if they can’t be happy, no one can. They wouldn’t be believable as the villains of an episode of Ren and Stimpy.

How can we call ourselves artists, how can we claim ownership of a medium as diversely wonderful as film, if we let analytics have the floor that used to belong to watercolors and the minds of children? One excuse I hear is that this new Peter Rabbit is actually for the children, who were weaned onto Buzzfeed before they could stand, that they won’t watch anything else. If that’s true, the fault is ours, for digitally removing the innocence from them. But if that was true, then Studio Ghibli and Pixar would be defunct companies for putting their stock in wonderment. Sony is living in a reality that they created in order to default on the one in which children deserve more than they could have made themselves. The problem isn’t the amount of innocence in our children, but the lack of our belief in it.

I’m not just talking about the innocence of a cute story. I’m talking about the innocence of an honest one, even a story that hides an inner darkness. Potter’s tales were often grim, with frilly social naivete merely edging the darksome naturalistic fables that hid beneath. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were eaten by the dogs she called in to chase off the fox that was threatening her nest. Tommy Brock ate rabbit on occasion. Peter’s dad was killed and baked into a pie. That’s the human reason his mom gives to keep him out of the garden, though the reason he goes anyway is purely animal: he’s a rabbit and likes vegetables. All of the good ol’ British neighbors in Potter’s stories still have their unique animal instincts that put them in a food chain despite their convergences on cultured undertakings, like visiting the community laundromat or going to market. The fantasy was in combining the familiar human patterns with the dalliances of animal instinct. The strange limpness of Sony’s new film is from the contradiction of their desire to make Potter’s stories more edgy by taking off their edge. A tale of barbaric animal niceties has become a predictable skit about animal-shaped humans that possess only the urges of normal teenagers.

But Peter Rabbit is just the most recent punchline of a cruel humanity pun propagated by a new breed of film performance artists, for whom the scandalous release of license abuse is the real art behind which the filmmaking is just a formality. But Sony’s track record has been impressively sadistic lately, with three The Smurfs movies, The Star, The Emoji Movie, and now Peter Rabbit tucked possessively under the skin-flab of their gastric bypass pouch. With all my screaming heart I want to reach in, pull him out by the paw, curl him up in the crook of my arm and give him the carrot I’ve been saving for him since I was four.

But I can’t because a big unfriendly screen has memorialized him as a douche. The film itself, comparatively, probably isn’t even that bad. Peter and his friends look good, the photography looks crisp, Rose Byrne and Downhall Gleeson look like they’ve adapted to this element. I’m sure it’s no Emoji Movie. But what should make your ears shiver is that we could be so guided by the trends of machines that when numbers tell us sincerity is out and sass is in, we’ll trample any rose in the world to get pennies for its leaves. And I mean it when I say pennies: there’s no way Peter Rabbit will make as much as a genuine film in its class, a Toy Story or a Paddington. To avoid doing any work, Sony traded a warm-hearted soul for a pittance under the assumption, I assume, that they got away with something.

Art isn’t just a product: it’s a testament to the beliefs that made it. What beliefs does Peter Rabbit celebrate? A belief in art or analytics, in magic or in marketing? I remember thinking the same of Kangaroo Jack, of which Peter Rabbit is more a successor than to Potter. At least it’s so disparate from itself that it says nothing about her and everything about us.

Ah, Peter. Still teaching us how to behave even after all these years, and in this form. Is there still a gentle bunny trapped inside the one we made, looking out from glassy cartoon eyes at a world so much better suited to romping around and warming cottontails by fireside? Are the executive managers puppeteering his moves with piano wire strung to each paw, removed from our view by the wonders of CGI? Hard as it may be, the only way you can save him is by ignoring him. Let him pantomime the incivility we use to hide our pain. See Paddington 2 instead.

And leave a carrot on your doorstep, in case he ever finds his way home again.


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