This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

‘The Emoji Movie,’ Like its Main Character, is Simply Meh

The Emoji Movie poster

This never seemed like a good idea for a movie. Sure, there was “Toy Story” which brought those toys we grew up playing with to wonderful life, and we had “The Lego Movie” which featured those building blocks in a story which had profound things to say about the power of our imagination. But emojis? Seriously, where can you go with those things? They are just faces with one single emotion to exhibit. How can you possibly make a movie out of them?

Going into “The Emoji Movie,” I was reminded of an episode of “Hollywood Babble-On” in which Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith ranted about the news of this movie being made following a bidding war between three studios.

“To go into a room and say, ‘Guys, I got the idea. You know the fucking face at the end of your text with the fucking tongue out and one eyebrow is up and shit? You know that shit? Here’s my idea. Hey, bring out my Power Point presentation. See that fucking round yellow face? That’s going to be my new movie!’ WHO FUCKING THINKS LIKE THAT?!”

“We could go pitch ‘Hieroglyphics: The Movie!’”

“But ‘The Emoji Movie?’ A movie about the emojis? What’s it going to be, the fucking family of emojis going on vacation together and, oh no, Tongue-Out is upset because Cross-Eyes is pissed off that Thumbs-Up is hogging the backseat? WHAT THE FUCK?! Seven figures they paid for this idea! Seven figures!”

Actually, what Garman thought the story would be could have been more interesting than this. ‘The Emoji Movie,” like its main character, proves to be a meh affair with jokes which fall flat more often than not, a voice cast which cannot lift the material up beyond its banal confines, and ideas which were dated by the time this movie went into pre-production. The fact it is coming out at a time when GIFS are proving to be very popular doesn’t help either.

For the most part, “The Emoji Movie” takes place within the cell phone belonging to Alex (Jake T. Austin), a human teenager who lives and sleeps with his phone like every teenager does to where kids colliding with each other because they can’t take their eyes off their devices is to be expected. Fortunately, there are no scenes of teenagers texting while driving which is a relief. Imagine how traumatic it would be for children to watch them getting into a car crash because the characters were texting each other about the latest school gossip.

Anyway, inside Alex’s phone live the emojis who are always around to help provide him with text responses which need no description with words, and among them is Gene (T.J. Miller), a meh emoji, who is super-excited about going to his first day at the office. Gene just wants to be a normal emoji like everybody else, but we soon discover he is capable of exhibiting multiple expressions and ends up having a panic attack which shows him to be anything but meh. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), whose infinite smile cannot hide her vindictive nature, orders Gene to be deleted from the phone. Of course, Gene manages to escape her cheerful façade and goes on a mission to become a normal emoji like all the others.

Director Tony Leondis was interested in exploring life inside a phone, and he also explored the plight of being different in a world which unrealistically expects everyone to be the same. The latter part is noble as we need movies which remind us all of how we should not exclude those who are different (you listening Donald Trump?) as this world is hard enough without people ostracizing others who are not seen as the norm. Even in this day and age, we need these stories as life seems to mostly be about conforming to societal norms, and not everything can or should be the same.

Regardless, this movie never has enough to work with. The problem with emojis is they, as characters, are far too simplistic. You cannot do much with them as their role in life or, in this case, Alex’s phone has been decided from the get go to where, even if they tried to do something, there’s no real reason to expect anything different from they are already programmed to do.

The plot of “The Emoji Movie” also suffers as it is the same kind of story where the underdog goes on a journey which will eventually lead him to becoming the hero, at which point everyone will accept him for who he is. It sucks a lot of times when you know the outcome long in advance, and it really tears away at the inspired movie this one could have been.

Leondis was clearly inspired by the “Toy Story” movies as well as “The Lego Movie,” but those movies managed to surprise us not just with their splendid animation, but with their stories which took audiences on rides they weren’t really expecting to go on. “The Emoji Movie,” however, isn’t much more than your typical outsider movie, and this is a shame as so much more could have been done here. This could have been an insanely inspired movie, but instead it travels down a road many of us have already traveled one too many times. Kids may get a kick out of it, but adults will be left wondering why this one couldn’t be as good as anything Pixar puts out.

Many shots are taken at various mobile apps like YouTube, Instagram, and even Candy Crush, a game for which I still get countless invitations to play (FYI, I’m not interested). Even Pikotaro’s “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” video makes a brief appearance, reminding us it was 2016’s most viewed video on YouTube. However, Leondis and his screenwriters, Eric Siegel and Mike White, don’t mine this material enough for all the satirical value it holds. Moments like the reveal of Candy Crush generate a chuckle, but nothing in the way of real laughs.

It’s a real shame because the voice cast is nothing short of terrific. T.J. Miller of “Silicon Valley” fame makes Gene an emoji we want to follow along with, and Anna Faris lends her everlasting charm to the codebreaker emoji Jailbreak. Maya Rudolph makes Smiler a wonderfully devious presence as her infinitely cheerful demeanor and pearly white teeth reveal her to be anything but truly happy. James Corden brings the same giddy energy he brings to his late-night CBS show to the role of Hi-5, and he steals just about every scene he has. I also have to say the casting of Steven Wright as Gene’s father, Mel Meh, was priceless.

Sir Patrick Stewart, however, is wasted in a role I expected to be the real scene stealer here, the poop emoji. Stewart has some choice moments which had me chuckling a bit, but he disappears from this movie too often to where I wondered why the filmmakers bothered to cast him. And the scene where poop is in the cube shouting “red alert!” makes me pine for another “Star Trek: The Next Generation” movie which will probably never happen. Regardless of how you felt about “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the “Next Generation” crew still deserves a better curtain call.

There was an animated movie which came out earlier this summer called “Captain Underpants: The Epic First Movie” which I wasn’t expecting much from when I walked into the theater. I came out of the movie pleasantly surprised as it proved to be very entertaining, full of imagination, and wonderfully subversive. I was hoping “The Emoji Movie” would surprise me in the same way, but the cards were stacked against this one right from the start. Emojis only have one function, to show a specific emotion. While Gene can show off many different emotions, it doesn’t change this fact. What we are left with is a thin story with jokes which are as funny as the hopelessly corny ones at all those Disneyland park shows, and animation which, while not at all bad, never comes across as the least bit wondrous. And yes, there is a post-credit sequence, but don’t bother waiting for it. All it does is show the fate of a certain character, and the moment is over in a flash.

“The Emoji Movie” does have a short-animated film preceding it called “Puppy!” which is based on the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise. It has Dennis getting a puppy, albeit one which is almost as big as King Kong. This short might pale in comparison to the ones Pixar makes, but it is very funny and playful and everything “The Emoji Movie” could have been.

Perhaps Garman was right. It would have been better to do an emoji road movie. Leondis would have had more luck with this genre than “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” did.

* * out of * * * *