|Directed by||:||Will Gluck||Produced by||:||Will Gluck||Screenplay by||:||Will Gluck, Rob Lieber||Based on||:||Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter||Starring||:||Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley||Cinematography||:||Peter Menzies Jr.||Production company||:||Columbia Pictures|
The Real Problem with “Peter Rabbit” ’s Allergy Scene
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.
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.)