A long time ago in 1938, author Beatrix Potter famously sent Walt Disney packing when he approached her with a proposal to turn her beloved Peter Rabbit stories into an animated film, reportedly later remarking, “I am not very hopeful about the result.”
Fast forward 70 years and director Will Gluck (Easy A, Friends with Benefits) has managed to pull off what Disney couldn’t, and we have the first movie adaptation of Peter Rabbit, a British institution of sorts and a rite of passage for many a young reader.
What the author will make of this contemporary, irreverent and loose CGI/live action adaptation of her work, no one can tell. But it’s certainly no little feat that Gluck — being an American and having no animation credits to his name — was able to convince her estate into letting him make this film.
Ask the filmmaker about this, and he’s quick to dismiss any difficulty in obtaining the rights. “My parents read me Peter Rabbit when I was a kid, and I fell in love with him. And then I read the stories to my kids when I had them, and I realised how much I still loved the characters and how much they’d stayed with me.
“I was surprised to learn that they had never made a movie about it. So we spent a lot of time trying to get the rights from Beatrix Potter’s estate and consulting with them, because we wanted to make a movie with their guidance. And that was about two years ago, and that’s actually quite quick for a movie like this. And here we are,” said Gluck, leaning forward earnestly in his chair as he faced a bunch of journalists at a round table discussion, on a rainy Sunday morning in London.
Voicing the eponymous mischievous furry rabbit is British comedian James Corden, host of The Late Late Show on the US’ CBS network. Playing his human nemesis Thomas McGregor is Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter, About Time, Star Wars). The two, rabbit and human, are fighting for the affections of the kind-hearted neighbour next door, Bea (Rose Byrne).
Joining in on Peter’s antics are his three sisters, Mopsy, Flopsy and Cotton Tail, and cousin Benjamin Bunny, voiced by an impressive star cast of Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie, Daisy Ridley and Colin Moody, respectively.
Part of the reason why the movie works so well is because Gluck and his team managed to seamlessly integrate the computer generated bits with the live action work. When Peter Rabbit and McGregor are engaged in a very physical fight in a memorable scene in the second act, you don’t for a moment imagine that the rabbit had to be digitally put in much later, leaving Gleeson to pretend fight with sticks, stuffed rabbits, men and women in blue leotards, and sometimes just thin air.
“That one scene took about five days to shoot. It was a combination of working with a stunt coordinator, a stunt man and Domhnall, and figuring out the fight and then moving it over to visual effects co-ordinator Will Reichelt’s team,” said Gluck.
But he attributes most of the success of that scene to Gleeson. “It’s all him. It really looks like he’s fighting a rabbit — it looks like he’s getting hit, it looks like he’s getting attacked, it looks like his chin is getting knocked out, and it’s a really hard thing to do and he did it beautifully.”
Getting the rabbits to look so realistic, like Potter’s photo-realistic illustrations, was not an easy task, either. Apart from an incredible amount of time and money, the team at Animal Logic, the animation house that worked on the film, had to dig up some bones — literally.
“They got the bones of all the rabbits and badgers from the Sydney Natural History Museum. Then they scanned them all and put them in a computer. So, the animals could only move how they could move in real life. I basically didn’t want Peter Rabbit to be able to go like this [stretches arm way above his head], if a real rabbit wouldn’t be able to do that. I really wanted to keep that reality, just like Beatrix Potter would have wanted,” said Gluck.
From LA to London to Australia
Surprisingly, Corden and Gleeson, who play the two bickering leads, didn’t set eyes on each other through the entire production schedule. This is largely because while Corden and his team of fluffy bunnies gave their voice bits in an air-conditioned room in Los Angeles, Gleeson was sweating it out in Australia, along with Byrne, where they shot most of the sunny, countryside scenes, owing to London weather being unpredictable and largely gloomy.
“We met many times before and many times post. But this [the press tours] is the most interaction we’ve ever really had, particularly about Peter Rabbit,” said Corden, sat genially next to Gleeson.
In person, however, they share a crackling chemistry. They even do an improvised sketch as they walk into the conference room for the interview, when suddenly Gleeson makes a dash for the washroom next door. “Domhnall likes to take all of his interviews in the toilet these days,” Corden announces.
In an interview with Corden on The Late Late Show, the pale-skinned Gleeson described his struggle with the soaring temperatures in the land Down Under, where they even dyed his signature ginger hair into a dark shade of brown, in order to “fool the sun”. “I was running around and it was 100 degrees. And in between they would have to put me in a room they called the fridge. So, as soon as they called ‘cut’, they would say ‘put Domhnall in the fridge’,” he recounted.
“Many people rushed me into a room which was just many air conditioning units pointed directly at me to try and dry the sweat out of my clothes because… it was all the way through.”
The film, which released almost two months ago in the US, has received mixed reviews at best. Potter loyalists didn’t take kindly to the slapstick comedy and the newer elements, and unfavourably compared it to the universally liked Paddington adaptations.
But Gleeson is unfazed. “If you love the books so much that you know that you won’t like the movie version of Peter Rabbit, I think that’s okay. The great thing is we haven’t burned the books to make the movie. The books are still there, you can read the books. And that’s amazing because the books are incredible,” he said.
Corden, in typical Corden fashion, gives the movie a slight political twist, summing it up against the backdrop of modern world’s troubled times, a message that author Potter also tried to convey through her often dark and ironic work: “The film is, at its core, a big comedic, slapstick, funny and live action animation. But, what it’s actually about is two people — a rabbit and a person — who don’t understand each other. And they don’t understand each other because they are different. And so, the actual heartbeat of the film is about acceptance. It’s about accepting the people who are different from you, and who look different from you, and sound different to you, and they are going to want different things. And actually, the best way to deal with that is to open yourself and go, ‘well, what can we do together as a team to make this better, as opposed to putting up walls?’”