Sam Rose has a son who loves Peter Rabbit, a character from a children’s book by Beatrix Potter, but she won’t take him to see “Peter Rabbit,” the new movie loosely based on it.
The issue? Her son has food allergies, and a scene in the film shows blackberries being used as a weapon. The backlash to the scene has already drawn an apology from the filmmakers.
“Peter Rabbit,” which came out last week, features live actors and computer-generated animals. A human character named Tom McGregor is allergic to blackberries. In a quest to gain access to his garden, rabbits pelt him with fruits and vegetables before using a slingshot to send a blackberry flying into his mouth.
McGregor struggles to inject himself with an EpiPen and then has anaphylaxis and collapses.
“I’m pretty sure Beatrix Potter will be turning in her grave about now,” Rose, who lives outside Guildford in Surrey, England, said in an interview on Facebook Messenger. “Allergies are often not taken seriously enough anyway. To have them trivialized on the big screen by such a popular character is immensely disappointing.”
In an emailed statement on Sunday, the filmmakers and Sony Pictures apologized: “Food allergies are a serious issue. Our film should not have made light of Peter Rabbit’s archnemesis, McGregor, being allergic to blackberries, even in a cartoonish, slapstick way.”
The statement, which was attributed in part to the film’s director, writers and producers, added, “We sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize.”
Kenneth Mendez, president and chief executive of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, saw the movie on Saturday.
When the rabbits fire a blackberry into McGregor’s mouth, Mendez said, “there’s a close-up of his face, and it’s him holding his neck like he’s choking.” When McGregor collapses and appears to be dead for a moment, the rabbits cheer.
Mendez said in an open letter to the moviemakers that they should not mock food allergies, which are often life-threatening.
“Making light of this condition hurts our members because it encourages the public not to take the risk of allergic reactions seriously, and this cavalier attitude may make them act in ways that could put an allergic person in danger,” it said.
McGregor, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is made out to be the villain for most of the movie. He is determined to keep rabbits off his property using whatever he needs, from garden tools to an electric fence.
Peter Rabbit is rascally, too, and he seems to delight in mocking and hurting McGregor as the two battle for dominion over the garden.
The movie fits an old trope of children’s shows in which two nemeses (like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, or Tom and Jerry) face off, often with slapstick violence in the form of explosions, high-speed crashes or falling anvils.
The reaction to the blackberry attack in “Peter Rabbit,” which is rated PG for rude humor and action, was mixed on social media. Some objected to what they saw as an insensitive disregard for allergies, and groups from as far away as Australia called for an apology. Others said it was only a movie and suggested that parents use it to start a conversation with their children about allergies.
Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in Queens, said he remembered watching Wile E. Coyote cartoons as a child. He said the blackberry attack in “Peter Rabbit” is a little different because it purposely exploits a person’s health condition.
“There’s some research out there suggesting that what is depicted in this movie is a real-world experience for some children with life-threatening food allergies,” Adesman said in an interview Sunday. “I can understand the outrage.”
Nicole Drey of Merrick, New York, said her son Brayden, 7, has such severe allergies that she takes him to movie theaters early in the day, when the air and the seats are as clean as possible.
They went to see “Peter Rabbit” on Friday morning, Drey said in a phone interview. And when McGregor collapsed on screen, she tried to reassure her son. “I just kept explaining to him that it’s make believe, it’s not real, and people don’t act that way,” she said.
Brayden did not like it.
“I was really afraid about the one part where they shot the blackberries,” he said. “I was upset because he had to use his EpiPen.”
In real life, he added, using the EpiPen is “scary.”
Drey said she knew it was just a children’s film, but “people that don’t deal with this don’t understand.” She has spent years helping Brayden deal with bullying, isolation, medical appointments and the everyday logistical challenges of finding safe food.
“I think there should have been a trigger warning, and we should have been notified somehow,” she said of the movie. “Put it out there, so we can at least talk to our kids about the contents and then make an informed decision.”