The Atrocity Exhibition
Awix flips his chips, Part One – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck's CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter's original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn't go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn't sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.
So why in sanity's name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus Dmitri asked me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. (I ask you.)
Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly' is just one of the much too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave', when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn't be at all surprised.
This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude' – yes, think of Miss Potter's famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent', ‘contemporary' and ‘attitude', aren't they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).
The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor's rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.
Yup, that's right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad's Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor's ‘poor lifestyle choices' were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That's so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!
Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I've seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh' on this occasion).
Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?
All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That's just so contemporary!
Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we're not making fun of sufferers, because we don't want to get letters'. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.
Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:
In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter's charming, gentle stories.
It's not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book's original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.
This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I'm not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there's fun to be had there. But don't do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.
Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children's classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I emerged with was that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film, so there seemed at least a chance it was dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserved to; it honestly deserved to – but apparently this is the film that finally toppled Black Panther from the UK's #1 spot. Nevertheless, this is not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.