The "Uncanny Valley" is a concept that comes from robotics, but which has long been applied to CG animation and digital visual effects, which suggests that the closer human simulacra come to precisely recreating the exact look of human beings, the more damnably off-putting actual human beings find the tiniest flaws in that illusion. That is, a robot or CG effect that is, say, 99.2% lifelike will feel substantially more horrifying and off-putting than a cartoon human who's only 80% lifelike.

Note that this is specifically meant to apply to human simulacra. The question that the new film adaptation of Peter Rabbit poses is, can it also apply to animated bunnies? For the titular Peter Rabbit (James Corden) and his sisters, Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) are all superlatively realistic-looking creations: brought into life by the artists at Animal Logic, the Australian VFX and animation studio that has been one of the world's foremost creators of impressively real-looking animal CGI since their role in making the farmyard population of 1995's Babe look so profoundly convincing (their "photorealistic animals" animated features include the delightful Happy Feet and its sequel, as well as Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, which is a crap movie, but a beautiful crap movie*). Like, if rabbits could talk, pull faces, wear clothing, and walk on their hind legs, they would look about 99.2% like these rabbits.

And thereon hangs the problem, because rabbits cannot do these things, and this is a big part of why the almost-exactly-perfect-looking rabbits of Peter Rabbit emerge from the film as slightly mortifying, horrid, alien beasts, whose presence can barely be tolerated for more than a small number of seconds without the viewer's whole self recoiling with a nauseous shudder. It is extravagantly unsettling and off-putting. But no more so than Peter Rabbit itself, a film that is almost completely devoid of charm or appeal on any level other than the morbid curiosity to see what a live-action version of one of the cartoons where Bugs keeps dropping anvils on Yosemite Sam would look like. The answer: like mental poison.

The film is based, with surprisingly obvious affection (and absolutely no fidelity), upon Beatrix Potter's era-defining collection of mildly insipid, morally hectoring children's stories with beautiful illustrations in soft colors that have much more to do with the books' enduring legacy than the starchy post-Victorian sensibility of the stories themselves. I'd still take any one of the 23 tales over this utter bastardisation, written by Ron Lieber and director Will Gluck. Here, Peter is transformed from a naughty, bored boy to an adrenaline-junkie psychopath, tormenting crabby old farmer McGregor (Sam Neill, in a gravely unflattering small role that gives him bright red skin and pustules) for little reason other than the joy of knowing he's making his father's killer suffer (Potter's prim aside that Father Rabbit was eaten in a pie is queasily visualised here, in a flashback that ought to have left more to the imagination). Otherwise, Peter and the girls and all their friends, lovingly transposed from Potter's corpus, spend their time scampering about the yard of McGregor's neighbor, Bea (Rose Byrne, visibly uncertain how to interact with whatever stand-in for the animated animals was thrown into her hands on set). She's a lovely woman, untalented modernist painter, and the object of Peter's weirdly fixated attention that blurs the lines between "surrogate mother" and "sexual obsession".  I wish to mention at this point that not one word of this review so far has been a fabrication or even a particular exaggeration.

Eventually, McGregor dies of a heart attack, while holding Peter in his grasp, a fact the rabbit ascertains by cautiously tapping the corpse in the eye, with a bright and cheery demeanor. Okay, so I exaggerated on one point: Bugs Bunny is an asshole, but I can't recall any cartoons where he displayed the behavior of a nascent serial killer.

This is perfect timing, given that McGregor's last living relative is nephew Thomas (Domnhall Gleeson), a myopic perfectionist employed in the toy department at Harrods, until the day he is passed over for a promotion due to flagrant nepotism, and goes on a violent rampage, destroying the very displays he so anal-retentively designed to within an inch of their life. He inherits the McGregor house, and immediately plans to sell it, but his brief trip out to the countryside turns into a long stay when he falls in love with Bea on the spot, lying constantly about his personality in order to keep her from despising him and his animal-hating ways.

He is, nonetheless, far and away more sympathetic than the title character, our protagonist and alleged hero. This has much to do with the deeply misconceived approach the filmmakers took to the material: it's a very clear nod back to the anarchic slapstick American animation of the '40s and '50s, when the likes of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones (to say nothing of their invaluable writers and animators) would run their characters through figurative and often literal wringers to see how much creative brutality they could mete out. Put it that way, and I'm first in line: modern animation needs a bit more anarchy, and frankly a bit more brutality, and the great midcentury cartoon slapstick created by those and other directors is one of the great American artistic forms. But they are cartoons. When Bugs e.g. shoots Elmer with a cannon, the pleasure lies in watching how the animators distend Elmer's boneless, mutable body this time. Domhnall Gleeson, unless I greatly miss my guess, has his full complement of bones. And the gags levied upon him are grotesque and off-putting - the one where Peter tries to straight-up murder Thomas by knowingly poisoning him with blackberries, to which Thomas is allergic, has attracted some social media outrage, but I could readily name another dozen gags almost as appalling. The blackberry gag is maybe the worst because it seems so plainly quotidian, and also because we see Thomas choking and collapsing and clearly about to die of anaphylactic shock. When he's electrocuted so hard that he's flung the entire length of his house and lands against the far wall with a heavy thump, at least he like, stands right up again.

I can imagine this working with a deft directorial hand (early Terry Gilliam leaps to mind, or early Stephen Chow): Gluck lacks this. Instead, there's just something grim and somber and wretched piling up, the structure of funny gags and the wincing sympathetic response of body horror constantly bashing heads with each other. But this is only one of things that makes Peter Rabbit so dreadful. The other is the manic, shrill sense of humor, based in zippy, insubstantial slang, gamely delivered by Corden in full-on "insincere chat show host" mode, besotted with its own clever irony despite that irony being stale as month-old bread, all of these 17 years after Shrek did all of this with more structure and a more concrete target. Plus, the film keeps thinking about pretending it's a musical, with a flock of much-abused birds singing Peter Rabbit-themed original songs and re-written versions of old songs. Sometimes, the birds aren't there, and the songs just happen; but they still apparently happen in the diegesis, given Gluck's inerrant tendency to stage all of the action in lockstep with the music. And this could honestly even be a bit fun and energetic, but by the first time it happened, I was already so pissed off at Peter Rabbit (note that this state took only about 45 seconds to attain) that it mostly couldn't have done anything that I'd have approved of.

And, in fairness, there's good stuff here. The CGI is beautiful, if a touch too realistic; the voice cast outside of Corden is very good (Colin Moody plays Peter's more thoughtful, but spineless cousin Benjamin; Sia voices Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, and to my surprise is actually quite marvelous). The romcom interactions of freespirited nature lover Bea and fussy, neurotic urbanite Thomas is charming enough, despite its wholehearted reliance on cliché, that it seems unfair to spoil it with a manic talking animal comedy, particularly one where instead of Thomas's lies leading to a third act misunderstanding that gets quickly resolved, the lead to him being stalked and abused by a homicidal rabbit animated by toxic sexual jealousy.

And the kids in the theater where I saw it seemed to enjoy themselves enough, laughing merrily as Thomas was thrown against brick walls and dropped from heights and almost blown up with dynamite. Kids are fucked up, man.

*I want to apologise that, here in 2018, I saw fit to remind anybody of the existence of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.