Review: Peter Rabbit – Peter Rabbit (2018)

Peter Rabbit – Peter Rabbit (2018)

Directed by: Will Gluck | 95 minutes | animation, adventure | Dutch voice cast: Tommie Christiaan, Do, Joey Schalker, Jan Versteegh, Shelley Vol, Amy Vol, Lisa Vol, Cystine Carreon, Roué Verveer | Original voice cast: James Corden, Fayssal Bazzi, Sia, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Daisy Ridley, Rose Byrne, Christian Gazal, Ewen Leslie | Actors: Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Rose Byrne

Generations of children – especially those in Anglophone areas – grew up with the stories of Peter Rabbit (Peter Rabbit), a rabbit created by British author and illustrator Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) who lives like a human being. He wears a jacket and shoes and lives with his mother Josephine Rabbit, sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail in a rabbit hole equipped with a kitchen, furniture and a shop where mother – a widow – sells things. Pieter’s nephew Benjamin Bunny and his father Bouncer are also part of the family. Pieter experiences countless adventures with the other animals from the forest. Potter named her creation after Peter Piper, the bunny she cared for in her youth. She originally wrote the first story, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” in letter form to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her former governess Annie. Noel was quite ill and Beatrix’s letter and accompanying drawing were meant to cheer him up. In June 1903, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ was published in paperback by Frederick Warne & Co., and by the end of the year 28,000 copies had been printed. Between 1903 and 1912 a total of six books with Peter Rabbit in a central role were published; ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ alone has sold over forty million copies. The Adventures of the Illustrious Rabbit were published in 35 languages, animated films and series appeared, and the Potter heirs made excellent money selling all kinds of merchandise.

Following on from the recent success of the two ‘Paddington’ films, Sony Pictures Animation created a live-action/computer-animated version of Peter Rabbit. Potter’s rather brave, delicate bunny – mind you, created in the Edwardian era – has been given a drastic makeover to appeal to the twenty-first century audience. The trailer, in which we see Pieter twerking and lovely sparrows catapulting around from the air, caused a real shock wave among purists; ‘Peter Rabbit’ (2018) is sacrilege’, and ‘Beatrix Potter is turning in her grave’. Fortunately, the film by Will Gluck (‘Easy A’, 2010) turns out not to be that bad, although Pieter (in the original version the voice of the immensely popular British talk show host James Corden in the US and in the Dutch version Tommie Christiaan ) is a lot bolder than Beatrix Potter ever intended and the rigorous disruption of the sparrows’ choirs turns out to be a kind of running gag. Pieter and his sisters Flopsie (in the original version Margot Robbie), Mopsie (in the original version Elisabeth Debicki) and Wipstaart (in the original version called Cotton-Tail and voiced by Daisy Ridley) (the triplets are called in the Dutch version). Voiced by sisters Shelley, Amy and Lisa) and cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody/Jan Versteegh) – mother Rabbit has passed away – spend their days mainly hanging out in the vegetable garden of grumpy old Mr Verhoef (Sam Neill, who lives in the original version is called Mr. McGregor), who usually chases them in vain. Verhoef’s neighbor is the lovely Bea (Rose Byrne as a character inspired by Beatrix Potter, voiced by Do in the Dutch version), who, unlike her neighbor, is fond of the rabbits and other animals that reside in and around Windermere. During the umpteenth time that Pieter Verhoef tries to outsmart him, the old man suddenly falls to the ground dead. To celebrate their ‘victory’, Pieter invites all the animals to a party at the house of his former nemesis. The garden is completely eaten and the house is one big mess.

What Pieter doesn’t know is that the old Verhoef has left his house to his great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson/Joey Schalker), a neurotic and aspiring London salesman who, despite his exaggerated efforts, misses his promotion at Harrods department store. Thomas can’t take the disappointment and goes so crazy that he is fired on the spot. Even though he hates ‘the countryside’, he decides to go to Windermere anyway. He hopes to sell the house for good money and start his own toy shop with the money (and get a nose for Harrods!). Once he arrives in the Lake District, he is once again delicately reminded of why he hates the countryside so much. He turns out to have found a much more effective and smarter way to keep the rabbits—or vermin, as he calls them—out. But then he meets Bea. Much to the horror of Peter and his family, the new neighborhoods seem to get along very well. Peter is afraid that Bea will choose Thomas and tries with all his might to put a stop to the budding relationship.

What then emerges is pure slapstick: Gleeson who, every time he thinks he has outsmarted the rabbits, gets the ball bouncing back hard. The booby traps in the lovely cottage are reminiscent of ‘Home Alone’ (1990). James Cordens Peter is charming, but also rather reckless and self-righteous. We even get to a point where we feel more sympathy for McGregor than for Peter Rabbit, and that must not have been the intention. In particular, a much-criticized scene in which Pieter and his bunny friends attack McGregor with blueberries, which they knew he was allergic to, will certainly upset the more sensitive viewers. For reassurance; the jokes are generally significantly less sadistic and often turn out well. The colorful parade of animals, each with its own running gag, are a welcome addition. The supposedly distinguished pig that unceremoniously throws its manners aside when there is something to eat, for example, or the rooster that is surprised every morning that a new day has begun. As long as the humor is subtle and not brusque, it is in line with Potter’s ideas. The animation is well done; the animals look cuddly and you can count the hairs, they are so detailed. Fitting animation into a live-action movie is seamless. Domhnall Gleeson deserves respect for the way he balances between the neurotic perfectionist who gets into a fight with Peter Rabbit, and the sympathetic guy who is having a great time with his new neighbor. He has to endure quite a bit, but manfully gets through it.

Whether you can appreciate this twenty-first-century Peter Rabbit film adaptation depends entirely on your own frame of reference. If you’re a purist and love that delicate and delicate feel that characterized Beatrix Potter’s work, then this unhinged Peter Rabbit probably isn’t your cup of tea. Because, unlike ‘Paddington’ (2014) and its sequel, the charm and nostalgia of the classic children’s books is hard to find. Younger generations may not be familiar with Potter’s original and can approach this film without prejudice. The rebellious slapstick of this modern Peter Rabbit will certainly please them. Because although the film makes questionable choices here and there, Gluck and his associates get away with it.

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