I grew up listening to my mom read Beatrix Potter’s beloved twenty-three children’s tales. I cherish distinct memories of, in the middle of a snowy day, sitting sprawled out in front of the wood stove with The Tale of Peter Rabbit or The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, my two favorites, open on the living room floor. Even though I couldn’t quite read yet, Miss Potter’s gorgeous illustrations captivated me and transported me to a world of quaint cottages, flowery hedgerows, colorful gardens, and fluffy bunnies wearing jackets.
The best part about Potter’s stories was that she made common, everyday woodland animals the very center of her stories; much like Kenneth Grahame did with The Wind in the Willows. These were animals I saw nearly every day, growing up in my family’s country home. Miss Potter, ever the radical conservationist and natural scientist, reminded me from a very young age, that I could have a strong relationship with these animals founded on compassion, acceptance, and deference.
Never did I think that I would see Rose Byrne cast as a modern version of Beatrix “Bea” Potter, in jeans and Uggs no less. Nor did I think I would watch Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and all of their woodland friends dance to Len’s “If You Steal My Sunshine” or Yolanda Be Cool’s “We No Speak Americano.” But much like the recent Paddington Bear, this ain’t Beatrix Potter’s or Michael Bond’s quaint Britain anymore.
Will Gluck, the director of rom com schlock like Friends With Benefits, directs a very talented and vivacious voice cast in a Peter Rabbit that seeks to get rid of the quaint, idyllic, and tender charm of Potter’s original works and replace it all with something “hip” and kids-with-screens friendly. The first glaring mistake Gluck and his team make is with the abysmal soundtrack. As mentioned above, the creators of this Peter Rabbit tale want dancing bunnies stealing vegetables from Mr. MacGregor’s garden to Top 40 tunes and exchanging dialogue that you might hear in a made for TV Disney Channel teen movie starring the Jonas Brothers. This is the very same mistake that filmmaker Steve Martino made with The Peanuts Movie. Martino really sought to capture the “heart” of the original Charles Schultz Peanuts comic strip and holiday specials, but he underestimated his audience by thinking they needed Top 40 tunes to make it more accessible.
Gluck has also underestimated his audience. Sure, I laughed at the antics of Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and his sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-Tail (Daisy Ridley). They are funny! Their voice casting was an inspired choice! Even popular musician Sia makes a surprising and wonderful turn as the voice of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle the hedgehog. What Peter Rabbit gets right, it gets very right! Unfortunately, what it gets wrong is unforgivable.
Gluck, like Martino, has sacrificed the very heart of Potter’s children’s stories by throwing in a horrendous soundtrack and a series of jokes, antics, and dialogue that do not make sense in the illustrated world of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny. Why is it that filmmakers who adapt classic children’s stories feel the need to modernize them? Why do grown-up filmmakers, time and again, underestimate the children who view their films by throwing “hip” garbage like rap songs and modern jokes about smart phones on the pile?
Do we believe that kids will still find stories like Peter Rabbit, Peanuts, The Grinch, Paddington, or A Wrinkle in Time valuable and captivating if we keep them in their original time period and setting? I can answer that for you. We don’t. At least, grown-up filmmakers don’t. After seeing a disappointing film like Peter Rabbit, I am convinced that we have lost our sense of imagination and we are projecting our failures onto our children with movies like this.
I wanted to love Gluck’s movie. I wanted to believe that he would respect the memory and the legacy of the marvelous Beatrix Potter and the timeless tales she weaved for children. Yes, it’s funny, but the tenderness and wisdom are non-existent. We can do better than Peter Rabbit. In fact, for our kids, we must do better.-Josiah Armstrong