The "rascal, rebel, rabbit" marketing lost me at the first two trite words. Seeing that this was written and directed by Americans had me not-sold from the start. Every American protagonist is a rascal and a rebel, male or female, in so very many films.
Brody's piece is worth considering as a whole. Anyone who could regard Susan Vernon as other than the villain of Love & Friendship is someone I'm apt to disagree with a lot of the time, but as the old saying has it, a broken clock is right twice a day. Because, perhaps, Brody has children and has children who have food allergies to boot, he couldn't completely remove the parent perspective in considering this recent film. For a film critic who has lamented moralism in mainstream film it could seem that ... well ... sometimes he feels a bit moralizing.
The Real Problem with “Peter Rabbit” ’s Allergy Scene
By Richard Brody
February 14, 2018
Last Saturday, a day after the opening of “Peter Rabbit,” Will Gluck’s new and free adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s stories, Kenneth Mendez, the president and C.E.O. of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, issued both a statement on Facebook and an open letter criticizing the film’s makers and its studio, Sony, for one particular scene. In that scene, Peter and the four other rabbits, who are being threatened and pursued by Tom McGregor (the heir to the venerable Mr. McGregor’s garden), adopt a new strategy to fight him: knowing that he’s allergic to blackberries, they use a slingshot to shoot blackberries at him, and one goes directly into his open mouth. He begins to choke, feels an anaphylactic episode coming on, reaches into his pocket for his EpiPen, injects himself with it, and keels over in exhaustion. [emphasis added]
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation criticized the filmmakers for making light of a life-threatening allergy and for depicting the use of an allergen as a weapon against a gravely allergic person. The statement warned that the movie could be “disturbing” to children with serious allergies; some people advocated a boycott. In response, Sony offered an apology. As a parent of children with severe food allergies, I wish I’d seen the movie before the controversy broke out, because I’d be curious to see whether I would have reacted strongly to the scene without having been alerted to it beforehand. Under the given circumstances, I found that I agree that the scene spotlights an unpleasant insensitivity, even an ugly obliviousness, on the part of the filmmakers. Yet, even more, it throws into sharp relief the over-all tone and import of the film, and, in the process, reveals other peculiarities that make “Peter Rabbit” exemplary of recent movies and of the times.
“Peter Rabbit” is a boisterous comedy in which live action (human characters in realistic homes, landscapes, and towns) is blended with C.G.I. as seamlessly and as persuasively as in “Paddington 2.” The film was made by a comedy director (Gluck directed “Easy A” and “Friends with Benefits”) who, in the script, which he co-wrote with Rob Lieber, has taken extreme liberties with Potter’s stories. Peter and his family live in a hollow beneath a tree in rural Windermere, England, and gleefully filch produce from the garden of their nemesis, the elderly Mr. McGregor. When Mr. McGregor suddenly dies, the house and garden are inherited by his great-nephew Tom (Domhnall Gleeson), a Londoner and a neat freak who is even more hostile to the rabbits than Mr. McGregor was. But his battles against them are inhibited when he makes the acquaintance of his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), an artist who is the rabbits’ defender and protector (and also their portraitist). Bea and Tom fall in love; knowing that Bea also loves the rabbits—and, especially, their ringleader and brightest personality, Peter—Tom has to do his rabbit hunting on the sly.
Peter and the other rabbits take advantage of Tom’s self-enforced restraint to run rampage through his garden and make his life miserable; Tom, for his part, stealthily takes increasingly forceful action against them. That’s when, facing real danger, the rabbits prepare to unleash the blackberry attack, knowing full well its potential consequences. Peter calls it “the endgame.” For that matter, a bit earlier, as they plan the attack, the other rabbits are hesitant; Peter’s mild-mannered cousin Benjamin says that “allergies are serious” and adds, “I don’t want to get any letters.” (The line wasn’t inserted into the movie after the controversy arose; it was always there.) [emphasis added]
What’s peculiar about “Peter Rabbit” is that, along with its quippy, often self-referential humor and plentiful (often clever) visual gags, it features an unusual quantity and degree of violence, which link it to classic-era Looney Tunes cartoons and Three Stooges shorts. When the elderly Mr. McGregor keels over, Peter examines him by poking his eyeball—and, after declaring him dead, gleefully takes credit for killing him. (Mr. McGregor actually died of a heart attack.) Tom comes slamming at the rabbits with rakes, hoes, and other garden tools. He installs an electric fence against the animal intruders, only to have the rabbits rewire it, electrifying his doorknobs with shocks that blast him, cannonball-like, against hard stone walls. The rabbits plant snapping traps and rakes around Tom’s bed, leading to pinchings and clobberings; they leave various fruits on staircase landings, sending Tom tumbling down. There’s a repeated gag in which one of the sisters enjoys taking a hard fall and breaking one rib after another, and a climactic bit, involving dynamite, that’s nearly apocalyptic.
In another sense, though, the story owes nothing to the action-heavy, character-thin antics of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd or Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Rather, Gluck’s “Peter Rabbit” is thoroughly composed and intricately characterized; the rabbits, no less than the humans, are given elaborate backstories and large emotional arcs that the plot is devoted, at length, to illustrating, explicating, and resolving. Peter and his sisters—Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail—are orphans; their father was killed and eaten by Mr. McGregor, and Peter’s familiar blue jacket is actually his father’s. Their mother died, too, making Bea is the closest thing to a parent that the rabbits have.
Meanwhile, Peter is a mischievous, temperamental, vain, proud hothead, who, in a quiet moment, acknowledges that it’s his “character flaw” to do “stupid and reckless” things. [emphases added] (Oddly enough—or perhaps not oddly at all, given that the movie is written by two men—Bea is given the least backstory.) When romance blooms between Bea and Tom, Peter’s response is partly one of a practical worry for the rabbits’ safety. But, as the violence ramps up between Tom and Peter, even Benjamin wonders whether Peter has an ulterior motive—jealousy. In other words, with Bea as Peter’s virtual mother, “Peter Rabbit” is something of a story about Peter trying to come to terms with a stepfather; the comedic drama links Peter’s mean streak to his emotional deprivation and trauma, and it takes him carefully through the paces of his rise to self-recognition and maturity.
It is precisely this strain of emotional realism that makes the allergy subplot, slight though it is, so repellent. The movie’s other varieties of violence are exaggerated, cartoonish, not just in depiction but in substance. Few kids have experience with electrical engineering or have dynamite at home; most kids know other kids with severe allergies. (Despite its explosive extremes and intricate, Rube Goldberg-esque calculation, there are no guns and no knives; Gluck clearly knows that certain things aren’t to be trifled with.) Meanwhile, the same emotional realism turns “Peter Rabbit” didactic, dutiful, tedious. Its mechanistic moralism, seemingly distilled from screenwriting classes and studio notes, is the sort that marks so many movies now—ones for adults as well as those for children—imparting values in the form of equation-like talking points, which prepare viewers not for life but for more, and similarly narrow, viewing. [emphases added]
Gluck clearly relishes the slapstick action that the characters incite, the situations inspire, and the technology enables, and he invests it with his own sense of exuberant discovery, which is minor but authentic. When it comes to life lessons, however, he dons his official hat and, far from doing any learning in the course of the action, merely dispenses the official line. That’s why the scene involving a life-threatening allergy is all the more conspicuous: while the rest of the movie marches in lockstep with its edifying narrative, that scene is out of place. It doesn’t follow the script.
The shooting occurred the day this was published and I wonder if Brody couldn't have gone further.
The pat moralism of cinema that celebrates and takes delight in sadism and the possibility of murder even in a children's film that is an adaptation of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit may say something about American culture. If Peter's "father wound" just gets addressed and he has enough empathy and emotional support then his capacity for premeditated murder can be brushed aside.
I'm not going to say that Brody could have opted to be more direct and more sweeping. He tends to be sweeping in describing cinema trends rather than society, but his complaint about the pat moralism stops short of explaining what could be so repellent about it. The emotional realism may have made the allergy subplot repellent to Brody but we could step back and consider that emotional realism does not necessarily require that characters be "good". An emotionally realistic story arc could, depending on how things were written, have had Peter and associates escalating activity to remorseless murder. The man dies of a food allergy and the rabbits are safe and things are fine. End of story. Brody is probably right to highlight a tension between the glee with which American film revels in violence and spectacle but it seems he finds the moralism rote and unconvincing.
But the mechanistic moralism distilled from screenwriting classes can't really be completely separated from a film industry that gives us stuff like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, can it?
It could be Brody's seen enough films aimed at adults that when he sees the mechanical moralism of children's movies that, as he puts it, prepares a child only to view more of the same kind of movie rather than prepare them for life, he's aware that what Hollywood does is mechanical moralism but where it's heart is truly at is in sadism, cruel humor, and stuff like that. Thing is, even when the moralism is completely serious or sincere it's not altogether clear if someone like Brody would be on board with it. Film critics may have the weakness of having to watch too many films. My own pondering in the last few years is an idea that if you feel that there's nothing new going on in movies or in music that may signal not so much that there's nothing interesting going on so much as that you're consuming too much and need to scale back consumption. The dividing line between creative artistic activity and consumption artistic activity may sometimes be too great for people.
Now we could (but probably won't) ban or regulate access to stuff like AR-15s, but there are other things at play. We could talk about how violence in video games is not likely to manifest in actually violent behavior in a majority of cases. I wouldn't say violent video games are things people should seek out because desensitization seems like a real possibility.
But I wonder if the problem is the disconnect between the rote moralism that Brody complains about in films and the lively sadism in the said same films. What if wwe Americans want to believe that "we are not like this" when, a good chunk of us are? The pat moralizing is the mask we want to wear over our cruelty and mockery that can neutralize it, if not to the point of keeping others from being harmed, to the point where we can look in the mirror and convince ourselves that we're good people, even if we've done a few innocent jokes now and then and made some sport of people.
Perhaps I could, as a blogger might, suggest that the sadism that briefly created a stir from the Peter Rabbit movie is a better tell as to who "we" really are than the screenwriterly moralism that is expected. Maybe Peter Rabbit American-style isn't dealing with some father wound and needs to come to peace with his surrogate mother bringing a stepfather into his life, maybe he's an evil vindictive asshole who represents what Americans really are, and the bid for what Brody calls emotional realism is just the rationalization for why the humor derived from cruelty and premeditated murder can be excused because nobody we care about or may see regularly dies on screen.
Because if we don't see it on what some call the "second screen" these days, did it happen?