The Peter Rabbit Movie: A study in poor film messages

T The Peter Rabbit Movie is indicative of taught entitlement in children's film

So, I have an admission to make: I  enjoy children’s films. I frequently find the “gritty, edgy film making” of adult cinema to be hard to watch, its style, often with gratuitous sex and violence, as well as casual use of crude language in order to “appear more realistic” or suchlike is rather unpleasant. I say this as a massive horror geek who has written on Lovecraft and enjoys “so bad they’re good” horror movies.

With that said, I feel the many parts of the non-children’s film industry has lost its sense of taste, and thus prefer to retreat into the relatively harmless filmography that is animated children’s cinema. With that in mind, I went watch The Peter Rabbit movie, which stars James Corden as the titular character, and boasts a solid combination of animated and live action scenes. This will partly be a review of the film, but it will also highlight some of the severe issues in messaging which make the film more problematic. With that said, expect spoilers for the film should you wish to go and see it.

The key problem I had with the Peter Rabbit movie is the message: The rabbits, which are clearly the “child sympathetic” characters in the movie, do many utterly repulsive things without facing lasting consequences. Not only this, but those who try and limit their actions are considered morally wrong. Peter and friends practically destroy Thomas’ house, and this is merely resolved by Thomas cleaning up the house and putting in an electric fence to keep the animals out. Perfectly reasonable thinking right?

The movie thinks otherwise, putting in ham-fisted garbage through the character Bea about the animals “being here first” and therefore having an entitlement to Thomas’ property. Such poor writing actually tries to be the “justification” for the actions of the rabbits in attempting to kill Thomas repeatedly, by trapping his house with various devices, rigging an electric fence to shock him (with an intent to kill) , and by using his allergies against him. While I find deep ecology as an ideology fascinating, and will probably write on it at some point, it is needless to say that the animals do not have such an entitlement.

The closest thing to a consequence we get is the destruction of the Rabbit warren, Bea’s home and Thomas’ love life on the part of Peter using explosives Thomas has planted. While Peter does eventually repair the relationship between Bea and Thomas, we do not see any real apology for the horrible things the rabbits do. Instead, Bea and Thomas are able to sort everything out with relative ease once they are back together, repairing the warren and Bea’s house in a typical happy ending.  The lack of permanence in this consequence for the rabbits actions renders its potential gravitas moot.

What truly frustrated me about this movie is that it had many opportunities to have a better message: The rabbits could have learnt that they needed to find their own food rather than stealing from others, or that being content with what they had was important, but instead their bullying, hedonism and general bratishness go unpunished. Even a message such as “we need limits on what we want to do otherwise we could hurt others and ourselves” would have been enough.

Instead, it appears that the message is “if you have something, and someone sufficiently pretty or cute wants it, then you are evil or mean if you do not give it to them”. Worse still “doing repulsive things to get what you want is ok, so long as people are able to clean up after you”. This is not something that fits with the spirit of Beatrix Potter, where Peter Rabbit was naughty but not malicious (and faced consequences for his behavior, being sent to bed without supper). Furthermore, it is not an appropriate message to give to children. The fact that the sort of behavior the rabbits exhibit would likely have lasting, destructive consequences on everyone involved is lost on the movie. Nor is the sense of entitlement the rabbits have ever problematised, not once is it suggested that they don’t have a right to the property of others. When such a sense of entitlement is encouraged in this movie and others like it, we shouldn’t be surprised that we have deeply unhappy children.

This all highlights a significant problem in certain children’s media today, which suggests to children that they know best and are somehow superior and better knowing than the adults in their lives. While it’s important to learn that not everything an adult tells a child to do is a good thing, teaching a total disrespect for authority and giving licence to do anything without consequence is just plain wrong. The idea of responsibility is a crucial part of any child’s learning, and too many movies, such as The Peter Rabbit movie , fail to provide that message.