Children’s literature can be a royal road to many riches; fabulous shared adventures and experiences, which as an adult we can go on with a child.
Reading bedtime stories aloud to my three sons during the 1970’s, always included a fair dose of tales surrounding that rascally English rabbit named Peter who lived in the beautiful countryside around Lake Windemere in the north of England.
Peter Rabbit, who wears a signature ‘blue coat’, was created in 1902 by renowned English author Beatrix Potter (1866–1943) who used her children’s books to both escape her parent’s expectations and to explore her own. She had excellent results, her books proliferating just like the bunnies she admired, becoming best sellers for generations.
They are today, the products of a multimillion-dollar, globe-girdling empire who would have had to give permission for this new tale about one of the favourite of their heroine’s characters. Peter Rabbit is a bunny very clever at making money.
My two eldest sons and I discovered the rascally rabbit together at the Children’s Bookshop at Beecroft in Sydney, a famous place for children to browse and enjoy books designed for every stage of their development. As the older two learned to read, they would read them to their youngest brother if I was otherwise engaged.
The original Peter Rabbit was very sweet and quite winsome, as indeed were all his companions.
However, my three sons were growing up in the seventies, which was totally different age. This meant Beatrix Potter’s books although favourites when they were little, were eventually put aside because their adventures seemed tame, well at least compared to Luke Skywalker and his friends in the blockbuster Star Wars franchise, once it arrived on the scene.
Now Peter Rabbit, the bunny behind the legend is tame no more. He has been well and truly brought into the twenty first century with a very loud bang and lots of attitude, with the release of a totally irreverent movie distributed by Sony pictures, which has ruffled more than a few feathers.
It was easy react to the happy mood of the children around me at the Jam Factory Cinema in Melbourne for an advanced Sunday morning preview recently, because they were all squealing loudly, shouting out and clapping wildly with sheer delight. After it was over they all rushed to have their photos taken with the large facsimile in the foyer.
This laugh a minute film features live actors working with the cutest CGI animals you will ever see and the animated animals all fitted so beautifully into the picturesque English countryside.
Peter Rabbit himself is so loveable in so many scenes, you will want to give he and his friends a hug. They include such favourites as the lovely Jemima Puddle-Duck looking stunning in her fashionable blue hat.
Jeremy Fisher the Frog is hanging out down at the local river, while a wondrous Mrs Tiggy Winkle, who cannot resist peanut butter, spectacularly shedding her quills as the local Swallows, swoop overhead either sing sweetly together, or to wrap as they mood takes them.
Hard not to love the passionate Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie) who wears a purple coat with great style, as well as the amusing JW Rooster II (Will Reichelt) who grumpily hates standing on a fence to crow and announce the dawn with his ever expanding offspring around him.
The children present were mostly accompanied by parents of my son’s ages now and the odd grandparent or two, who were entirely amused that it was not a movie about sweetness and light, or indeed sugar coated as early children’s literature like Miss Potter’s tended to be as it reflected the genteel style of living the author enjoyed herself.
There may have been just a touch more ‘adult’ humour than many parents would have liked, which thankfully would have gone over many of the young kid’s heads. However to me it didn’t seem more than usual in the tradition of animated scripts.
It also seemed important for the main animal characters to display true human frailty, ensuring a moral to the tale remains well in place as the animals reflect the ongoing misunderstandings and stupidity of their human counterparts.
Peter Rabbit and his sibling’s parents are both gone; their father we learn was only recently made into a luncheon pie by their arch enemy the horrible Mr McGregor (Sam Neil). He lives in the cottage next door to a deliciously slightly dotty modern Bea (Rose Byrne) for Beatrix Potter. and does his best to keep the ‘vermin out.
Peter distressed at losing his loved ones, swears he will bring him down. Mr McGregor certainly does finally capture the wily young bunny in the opening frames, however he drops dead with the effort, meaning Peter escapes again.
This story involves the arrival of Thomas (Dohmnall Glesson) Mr McGregor’s nephew from London, who has just been relieved of his job at Harrod’s, the famous London Store, a great advertisement for the old retail establishment every other department store in the world wants to be.
Thomas self-righteously let his temper go when he discovered he was not getting the promotion he sought and had worked hard for. He threw a super tantrum to the point of smashing up the department where he worked, because he was so full of frustration. It got him fired. Lesson number one.
So he leaves for a sojourn in the country at the small farm left to him by the Uncle he has never met, so he can put himself and the house in order and put it on the market to sell.
Thomas being a city slicker through and through, is quite unprepared for what he finds on his arrival. The interior of his new house has been completely invaded by all the animals from the fields around it, all having a party – and what a party it is… it’s a true lesson in party giving.
Thomas cannot get his head around his situation at all, especially when he finds out all these characters are much beloved by his most attractive neighbour. Bea adores the bunnies in her backyard and their friendship and antics make for a happy life.
Just how the main actors involved, Dohmnall Gleeson and Rose Byrne, managed to complete their scenes with CGI characters so well, will for me remain a mystery of technological brilliance and production knowhow, although they must both have an integral instinct for fun.
They certainly make an appealing ‘couple’. She has an opportunity to help him when she discovers he was a child brought up in a foster home and has many ‘issues’. On the other hand, he can because of his own mixture of experiences, give her the confidence she needs personally when assessing her art.
This includes admiring some original illustrations by Beatrix Potter of Peter Rabbit and his friends, which at one point come to life, creating a special short fully animated charming moment within the movie.
Peter is self-appointed head of his family, including three sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie) Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) who are all desperately trying to be assertive females for the new age. They have attitude too.
Then there is his cousin the slightly plump Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody), who Peter is hoping he can help lose some weight, advising him at one point to take his salad with dressing on the side.
Their comfy burrow is dug into the roots of a tree in an idyllic setting nearby the cute Victorian orneé cottage with an added glazed conservatory, of the woman they all adore – the lovely budding artist Bea.
English actor, writer, producer, comedian, television host, and singer James Corden plays Peter. He turns a character who displays a touch of wickedness when cornered, into a charming sweeter much more apologetic and empathetic character by the end of this rollicking tale.
You could say it parallels the realities of a lot of people’s characters, and lives.
Thomas tries very hard to convince his pretty neighbour Bea he totally adores animals, while she cannot believe the tales he tells her about them electrifying his front door and laying traps in his bed. All the while he is falling in love with her.
So Thomas as an aside, is desperately trying to bump of the bunnies Bea loves most, led with singular and some would say a blind purpose by Peter, who is jealous of the young couple’s growing relationship.
It makes for an interesting setting for all the action going down, which includes Thomas planting dynamite in the garden and the bunnies burrow and performing other dastardly deeds.
They make Peter more determined to make his life a misery. To do that Peter Rabbit will have to get his hands on the remote control Thomas has wired them all up to.
Peter has been the apple of Bea’s eye, well at least up until now. Pushed to his limit by Thomas’s arrival, means there is a point where Peter will step over that ‘unseen line’ we all have done if we are honest, from time to time, with terrible consequences.
The important thing as Benjamin Bunny reminds Peter Rabbit, is that he can learn to forgive others as well as himself then there will be way forward. But first he has to confess his sons to Bea and apologise.
It’s a hard lesson for Peter to learn, which includes some of his friends walking away when he fails to lead them, so intent is he on revenge.
Peter finds out the hard way that the difference between a real live hero and a leader is that the hero is often focussed on winning the battle rather than the war, and to do that you must have the support of all those around you.
When his friends walk off the job he realises at last he’s gone too far and needs to change his ways. He now has to become a restorative ‘leader’, a first among equals, one who empowers others and achieves for the ‘greater good’.
Admitting his faults and failures don’t come easy to this wisecracking rebel of a bunny, but then he doesn’t want the fairytale really to come to an end, so finally he sets a good example for others to follow.
There has been a big fuss in the press over Peter pelting Thomas with blackberries when he knows he’s allergic to them, which is part of his strategy to win… and it’s good Thomas has an epi-pen kept in his pocket so he can, and does save himself from going into anaphylactic shock.
You could choose to look at this incident in two ways… negative as so many have, or as a positive… because it teaches children about why and how those who do have such a medical condition are sometimes called upon to take drastic action, which in reality for a child would be terrifying to observe.
Sugar coating death, an integral part of life, is never good for any child no matter what they’re age. If they learn from a very early age to cope with disappointment and loss because it will be ongoing throughout their adult life, then they are halfway to becoming a happy adult.
Do remember Peter Rabbit is a movie for kids, who sometimes infuriatingly in this day and age, can they can be far more sophisticated in their assessments of what they like or do not like than we often give them credit for.
A few near me offered some very interesting observations (unprintable) out aloud after the show.
Palace Cinemas around Australia are offering special ticket prices for the holidays along with other kid’s movies and charming or alarming, if you want to find out what it is all about, see it for yourself and then take the kids. I will admit, I had a jolly good time.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
Director: Will Gluck
Cast: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Marianne Jean Baptiste, Sia, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie