Do the animals in Peter Rabbit have personhood? That’s the question that haunts us since watching the new trailer for the upcoming big screen adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s immortal children’s classic.
Seriously, look at it – they wear clothes, they hold conversations, they have agency, needs, and desires. But this is not a bloodless universe; Peter (James Corden) encounters a fox who tried to eat him, and we must assume that farmer McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson, doubling down on classic kids’ lit after Goodbye Christopher Robin) is omnivorous if not Rose Byrne’s Bea, who seems to hold the creatures in higher esteem.
From a legal standpoint, the law at minimum turns a blind eye to the extermination of nuisance animals regardless of their sapience – more likely they have no protections as citizens under the law at all, and thus no real participation in their own governance. Note the scene where McGregor consults with what is effectively an arms dealer in order to deal with the “vermin” – that’s no back alley deal, but a brightly lit high street shop; the killing of these creatures is not a shameful secret, but a common and, indeed, uncontroversial act in this culture.
We must infer, then, that Peter, Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia) and the rest of the woodland creatures are effectively dispossessed and McGregor is free to exterminate them at will. As the narrative makes clear, McGregor is a new arrival to the area, and his incursion and brutal treatment of the local population is clear parallel of British colonial policy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Consider how indigenous populations suffered under British rule in South Africa, India, North America and, yes, Australia. Note McGregor’s effective terra nullis attitude to “his” land. The parallels are unmistakable.
What remains to be seen is how the film carries the metaphor through to the end. Will Peter and company win their self-determination? Will McGregor’s hands be washed clean of the blood of the rabbit? Will Sia sing an original song for the soundtrack?
Peter Rabbit is in cinemas in February, 2018.