Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.
And this is where the similarities between Beatrix Potter’s original Tale Of Peter Rabbit and this live-action film adaptation end.
From here onwards, Peter Rabbit deviates completely from the book, as we see the four bunnies living alone without their parents, and under the loving care of a woman named Bea (Bea/Beatrix, geddit?), played by Rose Byrne.
The original story is about Peter escaping the clutches of Old Mr McGregor. The film pays tribute to this with the opening sequence, in which Peter (James Corden), together with his sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) and cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody) raid the old man’s vegetable patch.
The scene actually ends with the old man (Sam Neill) catching Peter, but dying of a heart attack in the process. Enter his young nephew, Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), an uptight manager at a London toy store who inherits his uncle’s manor and visits it hoping to sell it. What he doesn’t expect, however, is falling in love with Bea, thus incurring the wrath of the bunny, who tries his utmost best to get rid of Thomas.
The problem with many adaptations of children’s books is that the original story is never long enough to justify a two-hour long feature film, so the filmmakers have to do their best to pad it up as best as they can. There are parts of Peter Rabbit where this is glaringly obvious, especially a scene in the middle that features Peter and his gang throwing fruits at McGregor’s groin for about five minutes. To director Will Gluck’s credit, he does include some pleasant surprises and running gags that help to keep these proceedings entertaining.
For those familiar with Potter’s books, it’s also fun to spot some of the Easter eggs included in the film. Besides the obvious reference to Potter herself through the name of Byrne’s character, Bea, there are also appearances by Potter’s other famous characters, such as Johnny Town-Mouse, Pigling Bland, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Tod, Tommy Brock and Mr Jeremy Fisher.
Most poignant of all, however, is the incorporation of Potter’s original artwork into the movie, which will give any Beatrix Potter fan goosebumps.
As a fan of Potter’s work, however, I do have some issues with how the characters are portrayed in the movie. The Tale Of Peter Rabbit was cute, lovable, and simple. In the movie, Peter comes across as a bit of a bully, bossing his sisters and cousin around and teasing and taunting other characters constantly. His rivalry with Thomas is also a little over-the-top, escalating rapidly from fisticuffs to electric shocks and explosives.
Throughout the movie, I kept wondering what my four-year-old daughter would think of her beloved blue-jacketed Peter Rabbit doing such drastically violent and mean-spirited things, and imagined myself answering questions about why Peter killed the old Mr McGregor (even though he technically didn’t), or why Thomas is trying to blow up a little rabbit with dynamite.
Beatrix Potter herself used to insist that her books be small in size – “little books for little hands” was her reasoning. That quote sums up why Peter Rabbit the film doesn’t quite work for me. It takes a little story for young children and makes it way too big and adds way too much adult-oriented mayhem for it to be suitable for little minds.
As a movie on its own, Peter Rabbit is a decent if not utterly memorable watch. If you’re a Beatrix Potter purist, however, you should probably just stick to the book.
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Director: Will Gluck
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne and Sam Neill, with the voices of James Corden, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki