In Peter Rabbit, the feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tales, a rebellious rabbit concocts various schemes to nick vegetables from a farmer’s garden. Directed by Will Gluck from a screenplay co-written by him and Rob Lieber. Starring James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne.
There’s a watertight method for predicting how insufferable a film is likely to be, and it’s this: Look for James Corden’s name on the billing. If it’s there – which, in the case of Peter Rabbit, it is – then you’re shit out of luck. James Corden is the most intensely insufferable man who ever lived. The weight of his presence is enough to cripple even a moderately competent feature in much the same way that it presumably troubles his suffering skeleton.
Peter Rabbit is not a moderately competent feature. It’s an unfunny, obnoxious, irritating, oddly mean-spirited thing that not only burns Beatrix Potter’s original book for fuel but crashes the car into the farmer’s fence and leaves everyone involved tangled agonisingly in the wreckage.
Corden plays Peter, a loutish and sadistic blue-jacketed bunny who, along with his cousin, Benjamin (Colin Moody), and sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley), gets along by pilfering food from Farmer McGregor’s (Sam Neill) garden. The vague hand-wavy reasoning for this is that the rabbits’ parents have recently snuffed it and they’re all rambunctious orphans, so it’s fine that they terrorise old Mr. McGregor until he literally dies of a heart attack. The garden, after all, is as much theirs as anyone else’s, right?
That’s what Bea (Rose Byrne) would have you believe. She lives in the next house over and is a glimmering animal-loving flower child who paints the cuddly bunnies and thinks they should be allowed to come and go as they please. What’s weird about this is that she basically paints the illustrations from the original books, and her name is “Bea”, which suggests to me that in some other version of the script she was actually supposed to be Beatrix Potter. That gets a bit weird when it becomes clear that Peter kind of wants to fuck her.
Then again, that’s weird anyway, whether the script forgot about who she’s supposed to be or not. The third corner of this love triangle is occupied by Mr. McGregor’s uptight city-boy nephew, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), who arrives on the scene with the intention of doing the place up and selling it. This, needless to say, doesn’t go down well with Peter, who, since the old man’s death, had set himself up as a kind of floppy-eared partying overseer of an Animal Farm-style self-sufficient vegetable kingdom.
The conflict between the rabbits and Gleeson – who, it turns out, is surprisingly good at physical comedy, which is the film’s only saving grace – quickly comes to incorporate various slapstick shenanigans including a weird bombing subplot and Peter both exploiting Thomas’ blackberry allergy and repeatedly electrocuting him.
You might have noticed the ludicrous controversy surrounding the blackberry thing, which I ranted about on this podcast episode and would much prefer never to speak about again. The collar of Peter’s jacket has always been blue, but I’m not sure Potter envisioned this new, ASBO version of her cherished bunny. Either way, his firing berries at someone with allergies is the least offensive thing about a film in which he also lusts after a human woman in a subplot that we’re supposed to find touching and heartwarming instead of deeply uncomfortable.
I know you think I’m editorializing here. But Peter’s literal stated motivation is that he wants Bea’s affection all to himself because he misses his mother. This weird, oedipal motif is the thematic underpinning of Peter’s entire development as a character; a herky-jerky arc that leads, not entirely surprisingly, to the golden realisation that he can’t have everything that he wants all to himself. Yeah, I know – deep.
Still, that’s better than the spectacularly awkward subtext of Thomas cynically electrifying his border walls as a metaphor for the English immigrant experience; an idea borrowed from the Paddington movies where it was a) entirely the point and b) at least in the hands of talented, creative people. And that’s not me editorialising, either – at one point Thomas says, “I’ve got nothing against the countryside, I just find it disgusting.” It’s hardly subtle.
Anyway, Peter Rabbit is fucking terrible. Do anything other than watch it. Why not go for a stroll in the peaceful English countryside? Just make sure you take your EpiPen and kill any rabbits you come across just to be safe.