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Peter Rabbit review - sacrilegious adaptation is a total mess

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Director and co-writer Will Gluck’s annoyingly postmodern take on beloved children’s character Peter Rabbit is an unfunny and exhaustingly kinetic mess. Never mind spinning in her grave – this sacrilegious adaptation might just cause writer Beatrix Potter to rise from the dead and exact her revenge on all those involved.

The premise loosely follows Potter’s original: Peter Rabbit (James Corden), his cousin Benjamin (Colin Moody) and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail (Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley) spend their days terrorising the vegetable patch of elderly villain Mr McGregor (Sam Neil), who is intent on turning his furry enemies into rabbit pie.

Gluck adds into the mix neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne), an animal lover and mother figure to Peter, whose own parents are dead on account of Mr McGregor’s stomach. When the old farmer kicks the bucket during a particularly heated garden raid, his great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson) inherits his house. A snooty city type, Thomas quickly clashes with the rabbits – which makes it all the more surprising when he strikes up a romance with Bea. Needless to say, Peter isn’t a happy bunny.

Desperate to show how ingeniously postmodern it is, Peter Rabbit has its protagonist frequently breaking the fourth wall and spouting lines like “That’s my character flaw! Get your own character flaw!” Unfortunately, pointing out lazy writing makes said writing no less lazy, and there’s a sense that the film is far too self-aware for its own good.

Unlike fellow adaptation Paddington (2014), which never sacrificed the warmth of its source material, Peter Rabbit runs a mile from anything sincere for most of its runtime, making its feel-good finale feel thoroughly undeserved. A running joke sees cutesy singing birds being walloped by the boisterous Peter simply because it's not ‘that kind of movie’; but the film’s smug cynicism is enough to make you wish you were watching that kind of movie.

There’s also the small issue that Peter Rabbit isn’t very funny. References that attempt to get down with the kids are hampered by their datedness, while the adult-oriented jokes are just plain weird (case in point: a gag featuring a carrot as a stand-in for a spliff). The film’s best jokes are purely visual, but it can’t help drawing them out to death.

‘Don’t explain the jokes,’ instructs one of Peter’s sisters (it’s impossible to remember which one, because neither the screenplay nor animation does enough to distinguish them) towards the beginning; and yet, in its one major oversight of self-awareness, this a sin the film commits again and again.

The biggest problem with Peter Rabbit, however, is the titular character himself. Whereas Potter’s original version was charmingly mischievous, Gluck’s rendition is an obnoxious, arrogant brat whose case isn’t helped by James Corden’s endlessly annoying voice. The film’s interesting central debate – about whether Peter and co. have a right to Mr McGregor’s garden – is totally undercut by the fact they wreck his home and actively attempt to murder him. On the other hand Thomas, for all his pomposity, turns out to be a decent guy, making a real effort in his relationship with Bea and confessing ‘I love helping people get what they want’.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with the accusations of ‘allergy bullying’ levelled at distributors Sony for a scene in which the rabbits attack Thomas McGregor with blackberries, fully aware that this will cause him to enter into anaphylactic shock. And while it’s true that the scene feels misjudged at best, it’s Peter Rabbit’s resulting tirade against political correctness that is more shocking.

He bemoans that ‘everyone is allergic to everything’ and accuses Thomas of ‘using it as a crutch’. When reminded by Benjamin Bunny that some people do have serious allergies, Peter, who might find good company in Katie Hopkins, sarcastically replies to the camera ‘of course, of course, it’s a real struggle, my heart goes out to them, it’s very tough, very sad, I don’t want to get any letters’.

No book adaptation should be judged solely on the merits of translation from page to screen, but the fact is that Peter Rabbit is a terrible film in its own right. The box office success the film has already enjoyed in the States instils fear that no work is safe from an irritating Hollywood reboot – perhaps The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Tiger Who Came to Tea will be next.

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