I have to be honest and start this post by saying that I never had any intention of watching this film. It looked so bad and, as a fan of the book, thought it was a terrible legacy for Beatrix Potter’s famous rabbit. That was until I heard the story of James Corden’s dad email to Mark Kermode about the critics review. In it, Kermode described Corden’s performance as “appallingly irritating” which prompted the actor’s dad to write into his show to disagree with him. Replying that, as a parent, it was only the prerogative of himself or his wife to describe their son as such. In the email he also complained about the feedback Kermode gave The Greatest Showman but for different reasons. It wasn’t quite as epic as finding out that James Corden and Hugh Jackman are related. Although, it was a truly brilliant thing that I’m very glad happened. But the whole affair has got me thinking about the film more and, helped along by my recent obsession with Domhnall Gleeson’s face, I decided I had to see for myself who was right? Malcolm Corden or Mark Kermode. Let’s find out.
When Paddington was given a modern adaptation back in 2014 it was a huge success. It seamlessly blended live action and animation to recreate a beloved character for a new generation. I doubted that it would work and refused to see it but, once I did, I discovered that it was amazing. Of course, there were going to be wider repercussions. The sequel that could have gone terribly but, thankfully, went oh so well. Then the need to cash in using another well-known character. The first is Peter Rabbit: the most famous of Beatrix Potter’s animal creations. This isn’t the twee and lovely stories we grew up with. This is not the scampering, cheeky rabbit who likes to “borrow” his neighbours vegetables. No, this is a twerking, all singing and all dancing version for 2018. Voiced by James Corden no less.
The basic premise of the books is there: Peter, his three sisters, and his cousin find their food in the garden of their rabbit-hating neighbour’s garden. That is where the similarities end. Mr McGregor (Sam Neill) is still the terrifying and grumpy old man who caught and ate Peter’s father. But he isn’t around for too long. After an encounter with the rabbit, McGregor dies leaving the rabbits and their friends believing they have free-reign over the garden. But they find one nemesis is quickly replaced by another when McGregor’s nephew (Domhnall Gleeson), a city-dwelling, country hating toy salesman, takes residence in McGregor manor. He takes an instant dislike to the rabbits and instantly falls for his charming painter neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne). Unfortunately, she is a massive fan of Peter and his family.
At its core, this film is basically just another version of 2012’s awful This Means War: a film in which two men fight over the same woman. Of course, in this case one of the men is a rabbit who isn’t romantically interested in the woman but I think the point stands. It is just a series of sequences where two silly men try outrageous and cartoonish ways to stop the other one getting the girl so to speak. It is a film that is so painfully obvious and over-the-top that is ceases to be funny. It is also tinged with a deep-seated nastiness that really shows us how far we are from Beatrix Potter’s original tales.
You see, it’s really difficult to know who to support here. On the one hand, you know Peter is the hero because his name’s in the title but he also happens to be a terrible character. Thanks in no small part to James Corden’s cocky voice-over, Peter is no longer the lovable scamp but a narcissistic and often cruel little rabbit. He isn’t stealing food to survive; he’s stealing food to piss off his neighbour. He makes the two McGregors’ lives awful but has the audacity to pretend he’s the victim. He’s a very difficult character to love which, really, seems to be beside the nature of this film. I’m all for having main characters with flaws but surely they should have some positives too?
Then there is the new McGregor. Thomas is, essentially, a nice guy but he is pushed to the limits by Peter. Gleeson has great chemistry with Rose Byrne and the scenes of their fledgling romance are super adorable… if a little difficult to watch considering my enormous love for him at the moment. He doesn’t deserve the torment that Peter gives him but he also isn’t entirely guiltless. I mean he uses a buttload of TNT to try to blow up their home. He seeks out extremely violent and horrible ways to keep them out of his garden. He’s hardly the good guy. So it’s difficult to really know who you’re supposed to be siding with here.
It’s not as if the supporting players are really offering that much to compensate. Bea is the quintessentially nice if horribly underused and underwritten female. It would have been nice to see her get something more to do than prance around wearing wellies and looking lovely. The rest of Peter’s family are great but weirdly voiced. Daisy Ridley stands out as Cottontail, a tomboyish female who wants to follow in her big brother’s footsteps. However, I have to say I resent the casting of the brilliant Margot Robbie as Flopsy. I love her but there is a definitely struggle with the accent which is incredibly annoying and off-putting. Elizabeth Debicki fares better with sounding English but fails to make much of an impression. The rest of Beatrix Potter’s world show up in some forms but their characteristics simply become repeated gags that lose their appeal after the second time.
I went into this film thinking that I would hate it, based on the trailer, but wanting to give it a shot. And I tried. I really did. There was a part of me that wanted to love this but I couldn’t. It’s not as terrible as I thought it would be but there is something so wrong with it. It’s like every step it takes falls slightly short. Every joke is slightly misjudged. Every character written slightly wrong. Every voice slightly miscast. It’s not even the fact that it differs so completely from the original text. Yes, I don’t see what’s wrong the original: it has a timeless appeal. But I also don’t see the problem with moving with the times. It’s just that this isn’t a reinvention of an old story. This is shameless pandering using a character that was bound to make money.
The humour doesn’t work and the tone is all wrong. It’s not just a dark children’s comedy but a nasty children’s comedy. Physical comedy is one thing but watching a bunch of rabbits repeatedly electrocute a man just seems to take it a step too far. The actors try their best to bring the material together but it’s just not enough. No matter how deeply Gleeson throws himself into the role it doesn’t make Thomas more appealing. No matter how loud Corden’s voice-over gets it doesn’t make Peter seem any more charming. The film relies on the animation to get it through. The furry creatures are, admittedly, super adorable and fluffy. But it’s not enough to distract from everything else. This is a tired story that relies on repeating the same joke over and over because nobody could be bothered to think of any more. It’s attempts to be edgier and cooler than the books leads it to become cruel and unnecessarily violent. It’s just a strange film filled with strange characters. When it came down to it, I’d happily blow up everyone on-screen with TNT and be morally happy with the decision.