We’ve had this weird run of movies where someone’s taken a short picture book and stretched the plot out to a feature length movie. It’s not that it’s exactly an epidemic or anything that’s sweeping the industry, but it seems to have popped up a surprising number of times over the years. You’ve got your Dr. Seuss adaptations from Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the upcoming The Grinch animated movie later this year (with everything from Horton Hears a Who, to The Cat in the Hat in between). You’ve got major successes like Shrek, movies you’ve forgotten about like Madeline, even ones as recent as as Ferdinand last December, and a whole slew of other movies that had to add in several subplots to make a 32 page book stretch out into a 90 minute film. It’s not to say that this is a bad idea, there are plenty of movies based on children’s picture books that were surprisingly good, but when you line them all up, it’s surprising to realize just how many of them are. Usually when these movies are announced, no matter what success stories you can point to in the past, they are treated as a bad idea, something that wasn’t meant to be adapted into a movie, and almost inevitably, someone will try and prove their point by saying whatever movie is in question is destroying a beloved childhood story, and “it’s like making a Peter Rabbit movie and trying to make him rap.” Well, Peter Rabbit doesn’t rap in this movie but he does do just about everything else.
Peter Rabbit has been the example for the eventual result of this trend in part because the story of Peter Rabbit, at least in the book, is such a simple one. Peter is told to not go into the garden of Mr. McGregor, but he does anyway. He almost gets caught, he gets away, but he loses his blue jacket in the process. The End. Of course, for the big Peter Rabbit fans out there, this famous story is one of five stories Beatrix Potter wrote that featured the Rabbit, which were five of the twenty plus stories that she would write with her animal protagonists, but since The Tail of Peter Rabbit is the most well known one, it’s the story that this movie chooses to acknowledge.
Peter Rabbit actually presents itself as a sort of sequel to the original story. As the movie opens, Peter and his friends have been tormenting Mr. McGregor’s garden for quite some time, so the events of the storybook have clearly already happened. (Again, this movie really only considered the first story as the events of the movie directly contradict some of the later Peter Rabbit stories.) The movie takes a quick turn by letting us know that Peter’s mother had died at some point between the book and the beginning of the movie leaving Peter and his three sisters (and cousin) to fend for themselves. The movie then takes another turn by killing of chief antagonist Mr. McGregor himself, leaving the garden and apparently the entire McGregor manor free for the animals to take over.
For the first half hour or so of this movie, every bad idea you can think of when it comes to a Peter Rabbit live action movie happens. Peter is a wisecracking, too cool for school kind of character that just results in making him unlikable. There are bathroom humor jokes and jokes about the fact that Peter (and most of the other animals) don’t wear pants. There are at least three points in the first act of the movie where there’s an extended dance sequence where CGI animals all perform elaborate choreography to modern pop music. This movie is pretty much the nightmare that everyone had when they found out about the live action Peter Rabbit movie.
However, something interesting happens, partway through the movie. It’s not really enough to redeem all of the issues from early one, but somehow the movie starts to turn itself around. The new Mr. McGregor (Domhall Gleeson)is a young man who prides himself on orderliness and cleanliness. He’s the great grandnephew of the original McGregor, but this one has just as much hatred for wildlife as the first one. He’s comes to the McGregor house to evaluate its potential for being resold, where he meets Bea (Rose Byrne), a young woman who’s the only human friend of the woodland creatures and clearly meant to be Beatrix Potter, though the movie only ever calls her Bea. Bea goes perhaps a bit too far in to opposite direction when it comes to wildlife, feeling that wildlife should be free to go wherever they want, whether it be into your even into your house. Bea and McGregor begin to develop a romantic relationship much to the disapproval of Peter (though the movie tries very hard to make sure you know that Peter’s jealousy of McGregor comes from him seeing Bea as a surrogate mother and not anything else). Weirdly a lot of this middle part of the movie works for the most part. McGregor and Peter do battle while both trying to convince Bea that they’re getting along. Again, it doesn’t fit the feel of what a Beatrix Potter story should feel like, but there are several parts where the humor actually lands really well.
Still, it’s not enough to put off the feeling of “wrongness” this movie has. This just doesn’t feel like Peter Rabbit or any of the “Tale of” stories that Beatrix Potter wrote. Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are all characters (since they’re the only other Peter Rabbit characters that general audience could probably name) but their personalities from the stories are completely discarded for each rabbit to have a “thing” or a recurring joke that gets old very quickly and never really hits it out of the park to begin with. As a live action movie based on a children’s book, complete with CGI animal main character, this movie hits just about the exact tone you would expect. And some may argue that, that’s fine. We knew that Peter Rabbit was going to be “hip and cool” because that’s what always happens, and if they can do that and still make a movie where a majority of the humor lands, they’ve still made a fine movie. And you could say that it is a fine movie. But when Paddington has been so successful at not only adapting the source material but the tone and feel of the original books twice now it’s hard to give Peter Rabbit a pass on just being fine.
Tags: Beatrix Potter, Daisy Ridley, Domhnall Gleeson, film, Margot Robbie, movie, peter rabbit, review