The simple, no-frills stories originated by author Beatrix Potter come to the big screen this week with the release of Peter Rabbit. Mixing live action and animation, James Corden voices the titular rabbit, the de facto leader of all the animals who live on McGregor’s farm. They are well fed and everything is great, including enjoying an understanding with their human neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne).
Things change with the arrival of Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson). He wants all the animals gone and off his farm immediately, thinking them to be pests and vermin. That not only brings him into conflict with Peter but complicates the romance budding between him and Bea since she’s very protective of the creatures. You get where this is going.
The teaser poster makes it pretty evident that this is not your parents’ Peter Rabbit. He’s seen here luxuriating on a massive pile of carrots like he’s a “Breaking Bad” drug dealer on a pile of cash, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. We’re told at the top he’s “Not your garden variety hero,” so the studio wants to sell the audience right up front on a hip, unexpected take on the character, not a gentle and refined (read: old-fashioned) take.
For the theatrical poster that change in attitude is made much more explicit. Peter is shown holding a carrot while behind him a handful of other carrots are plunged into the wall. I’m not clear on what exactly has happened here. Was someone throwing carrots at him? Was he throwing them at the wall himself in a fit of rage? This seems deranged. The copy here is just a bunch of adjectives about him. “Rascal. Rebel. Rabbit.” 10 points from the movie for using “rascal,” which should never be applied to any rabbit whose name isn’t Bugs.
As the first trailer opens we meet Peter, who’s introduced based on his lack of pants. He makes the social rounds of his domain and throws a wild party for all the animals in McGregor’s house. When the young farmer comes home and finds out what’s happened, everything goes crazy.
It’s…not great. Sony clearly, as with the posters, wants to sell this as a hip, confident take on the character but honestly if you’re going to go in this direction why use the name? Just come up with something actually original.
We meet Peter and get a sense of the hijinks he’s prone to in the second trailer, which shows him as the life of the party at the farm and elsewhere. He’s having a great time with all his friends until a new farmer shows up who isn’t exactly an animal lover. That’s in stark contrast to Bea, who knows and protects Peter and the others and who tries to turn McGregor’s attitude around. There’s lots of physical comedy and footage of various plans to try and outsmart McGregor. There’s also, of course, the romantic subplot between McGregor and Bea that complicates everything.
At least it shows more of the story. Can’t say it’s all that intriguing since I’m not sure “electrocuting the mean farmer” is a kid-friendly message or one that’s in line with the history of the story, but that’s just me.
Online and Social
There’s not much on the official website Sony created. It’s mostly focused on selling tickets and so just has a “Videos” section with the trailers and the character-based vignettes that were released as well as a “Story” section with a synopsis and cast/crew lists. There’s also information on a “Walkabout” publicity tour that went around to various locations across the country. Links in the upper right corner go to the movie’s Facebook and Instagram profiles but there was no separate account on Twitter.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
I don’t see any domestic TV spots, but short-form videos, as well as the trailers, have been used as ads on social media. That’s about all the paid campaign I’m aware of.
Media and Publicity
Writer/director Will Gluck spoke about an obvious topic of concern, which is the expansion of the original story necessary to make it into a feature-length film. He tried to reassure the audience that he was being respectful to that classic, playing up the humor of anthropomorphized animals and including several beloved moments from the book while avoiding anything that might be meant only for adults or seem risque. The preservation of the original was also paramount to the representatives of the book’s publisher, who talked there about how they were involved and made sure no lines were crossed that would be inappropriate.
There were a few charitable initiatives the movie got involved in supporting through various stunts. One of those stunts was the Bunny Bowl that happened on Super Bowl Sunday, featuring two teams of rabbits being adorable.
Corden of course has his own late night talk show through which he occasionally promoted the film and some members of the rest of the cast made a few appearances as well, though most were also just coming off tours for other movies.
I don’t even know who the audience for this campaign is. Not only does it drastically change the tone and character of a classic (eliminating anyone old enough to have grown up reading the books or having them read to them) but it’s not even presenting anything fresh. The kids who might find the hijinks of an anthropomorphized rabbit and his friends funny aren’t going to be all that interested in the romantic subplot between two old people.
That leaves a movie that seems as if it’s been drastically altered by studio notes to the writers to make something that was a bit stuffy into something hip and loose, casting aside most anything that’s unique along the way. The human actors all do their best to be charming and the voice cast is great to be sure. But if we wanted to watch Alvin & The Chipmunks or The Smurfs, those movies are already out there.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.