Critics have found a number of ways to describe Sony Pictures' new adaptation of Beatrix Potter's mischievous yet beloved bunny, "Peter Rabbit." The modern Peter Rabbit is a frat bro, a "raging narcissist," a vandal who escalates a feud into a "truly sadistic display of violence."
Now, the bunny character has been billed as something else - a food allergy bully.
That's because in one scene, Peter and his bunny friends gang up on their nemesis, Mr. McGregor, by pelting him with blackberries, even though he is allergic to them. When one berry lands in his mouth, he begins to choke before injecting himself with an EpiPen.
The scene prompted backlash from allergy advocacy groups and parents of children with food allergies, who said it mocked an attack that in real life could have proved fatal. The segment led to a hashtag - #boycottpeterrabbit - and an online petition demanding an apology.
On Sunday, Sony Pictures issued an apology in a joint statement with the filmmakers, saying that food allergies are a serious issue and the film "should not have made light" of a character being allergic to blackberries "even in a cartoonish, slapstick way," according to the Associated Press.
The studio and filmmakers said that they "sincerely regret not being more aware and sensitive to this issue, and we truly apologize."
The movie, which debuted over the weekend, came in second place at the box office, earning $25 million. Reviews so far have been mixed, with some applauding its computer-generated animation and "charming," "clever" characters. But many critics agreed it was a far cry from Potter's gentler vision.
In a post shared on Facebook, the Kids With Food Allergies Foundation condemned the scene, calling it "disturbing." Such food allergy "jokes," the group said, "are harmful to our community."
Kenneth Mendez, president and chief executive of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, wrote an open letter to Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Animation, Columbia Pictures and Animal Logic, saying the movie "suggests that food allergies are 'made up for attention.' "
"The very real fear and anxiety that people experience during an allergic reaction (often referred to as an impending sense of doom) is a serious matter," the group wrote. "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."
"We would welcome the opportunity to educate your company and the cast of the movie about the realities of food allergy so that they and your viewing audience can better understand and recognize the gravity of the disease," Mendez added.
The group said this wasn't the first time Sony Pictures has "used food allergies as a punchline in the plot of a kids' movie." It mentioned examples of "misrepresented food allergies" in movies such as "The Smurfs" and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs."
It also pointed out recent real-life accounts of people using food to bully children with allergies.
For example, in a Dec. 13 incident, a 14-year-old girl was accused of rubbing pineapple on her own hand and then high-fiving a girl allergic to the fruit during lunch. Police said the girl knew about the classmate's pineapple allergy, and the fruit was not typically served during that lunch period.
The victim, also 14, was transported to a hospital, where she was treated and released. The 14-year-old suspect was charged in juvenile court with felony aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy, among other offenses. Two other girls, who are 13 and 14, were charged with criminal conspiracy, among other offenses.
In July, a 13-year-old London boy with a dairy allergy died after suffering a severe reaction to a piece of cheese allegedly forced on him during a school break, the Guardian reported.