Ever since Babe (1995), we have had a spate of talking animals films conducted in live-action, using animatronics and/or CGI to allow them to integrate with actors in stories that up until that point could have been imagined in animation. Since Babe, a number of classic stories and characters have been given this live-action treatment with the likes of 101 Dalmatians (1996), Dr Dolittle (1998), Stuart Little (1999), Garfield (2004), Charlotte’s Web (2006), Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007), Underdog (2007), Yogi Bear (2010), Paddington (2014) and The Jungle Book (2016).
The Peter Rabbit film has been taken on by Sony Pictures Animation who are responsible for the likes of Monster House (2006), Open Season (2006), Surf’s Up (2007), Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), The Smurfs (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012) and The Emoji Movie (2017), plus the Aardman collaborations Arthur Christmas (2011) and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012). The film is directed by Will Gluck, a producer of light sitcoms, who has also directed the likes of Easy A (2010), Friends With Benefits (2011) and the much despised remake of Annie (2014).
Beatrix Potter’s tales were charming tales for children that imagined them in a very British setting. By contrast, Peter Rabbit is an absolute and utter insult to Beatrix Potter’s name. In fact, insult is not enough of a term to describe how horrible the film is. It is a film that drunkenly urinates over Beatrix Potter’s gravestone, all the while gleefully laughing at the lulz of it. I am happy to name Peter Rabbit an early contender for Worst Film of 2018.
‘Babe showed how to do the type of film that should have been; even the Paddington films show how it is possible to respect the source material while not being afraid to be silly. On the other hand, there is a certain number of these films that abandon the source material and aim for the family entertainment equivalent of the lowest common denominator – that is to say, pandered down to an insulting level, filled with contemporary popular cultural references, where characters sit around making hip and glib one-liners that frequently rupture the suspension of disbelief, or the films filled with a preponderance of slapstick and flatulence and poop gags. Guilty offenders among these are Dr Dolittle and Yogi Bear, or original talking animals works like Racing Stripes (2005) and Furry Vengeance (2010).
Peter Rabbit abandons Beatrix Potter’s genteel stories and takes a massive belly flop right into the midst of this type of comedy with spectacularly awful results. The rabbits talk about safe spaces and joke “I don’t know why I’m so out of shape, I only eat salad.” The animals are seen dancing throughout the house, while modern pop songs and dance tracks frequently play on the soundtrack. The film is overrun with slapstick gags – Peter walking along a powerline using Benjamin as a balancing pole; slapstick chases around the garden with Old Man McGregor – even gags where it is implied Peter is about to shove a carrot up the old man’s exposed ass at one point; slapstick scenes running around the Land Rover; scenes with Domhnall Gleeson being electrically zapped all over the house; scenes pelting Domhnall Gleeson with vegetables from catapults; scenes with the animals amok in Harrods and so on. It is worth remembering that Walt Disney wanted to film Potter’s stories but she turned him down thinking that his approach was too vulgar.
Other Beatrix Potter adaptations include the theatrically-released ballet adaptation Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), which featured dancers in animal costumes, the tv special The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1990) and the animated tv series The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (1997). Also of note is Miss Potter (2006), a biopic about Beatrix Potters life.