Peter Rabbit belongs to a long line of recent animated films that attempt to revamp classic children’s stories to fit modern sensibilities. However, this means that it also falls into the category of animated films that try to cater to both children and adults with crude, sarcastic humor—ultimately alienating both in the process. In fact, it’s hard to understand who exactly Peter Rabbit is supposed to appeal to. Frat boys looking for a movie about animals who act cocky and know how to party? Three Stooges fans who rejoice in seeing humans and animals alike enduring every kind of slapstick torture imaginable? Jaded parents who wish they never had to read another of Beatrix Potter’s beloved Peter Rabbit books to their children, and are eager to have a few laughs at old Peter’s expense?
If any of the above demographics were the filmmakers’ target audience, then it would be safe to label Peter Rabbit a success. But as a movie for children, it’s a total failure. The makers of Peter Rabbit have seemingly joined the campaign to drain all of the innocent fun from animated films, a tendency also exhibited in recent pictures like The Nut Job and My Little Pony: The Movie. Whereas Pixar releases such as Finding Nemo and Cars once revolutionized the animation genre by making it more accessible to parents and older kids via sly cultural references and subtle in-jokes, the animated flicks of the past few years have decided to make sarcastic humor their primary focus; the result is that films like Peter Rabbit are virtually inaccessible to the children who are ostensibly its target audience.
Beatrix Potter’s original books told gently humorous tales about Peter Rabbit’s attempts to eat as many vegetables as possible before being chased out by mean old Mr. McGregor. But there is little gentleness to be found in this adaptation, for which that original scenario is merely a launching point for a bloated spectacle full of irreverent humor and violent slapstick. Nevertheless, one of the film’s few redeeming features is its blending of lifelike CGI animation for the animal characters and live action for the humans, which serves as a welcome change of pace from the Pixar-knockoff style seen in most animated movies of recent years.
James Corden voices the titular rabbit, while Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, and Margot Robbie provide the voices for Peter’s three sisters, who serve as lookouts during his forays into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Sam Neill plays Mr. McGregor, although this turns out to be a bit part, as the character’s sudden heart attack at the end of the film’s opening sequence (followed by a tasteless montage that takes aim at the old man’s poor diet) renders him absent from the rest of the story. The old man is duly replaced by his grandnephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleason), an unhinged toy-store manager from London who promptly begins an all-out war against Peter and his friends once he arrives in the countryside.
While the movie largely abandons the spirit of Potter’s books, the filmmakers did try to pay tribute to her with the character of Bea (Rose Byrne), Mr. McGregor’s kindly, animal-loving neighbor, who protects her rabbit friends and paints portraits of them in an exact replica of Potter’s illustration style. But this isn’t enough to save the film—in fact, the romantic interludes and moral lessons that result from her ill-founded relationship with Thomas are likely to test kids’ attention spans even further.
It’s a shame that animated films are no longer the reliable source of children’s entertainment that they once were. Unfortunately, movies like Peter Rabbit have become a hallmark of kids’ cinema, despite the fact that their inappropriate humor and stale plots continually fail to satisfy either young ones or their parents. When the studios will finally realize that this formula doesn’t work and try something new is anyone’s guess.