Rankin-Bass’s The First Easter Rabbit, a TV special recently released to deluxe-edition DVD by Warner Brothers, is a clear case of a gang of creators who cut their teeth on classic Christmas specials, trying to apply that unique formula to an Easter special, with disastrous results.
The story begins with the Burl Ives as the Easter Bunny talking directly to the camera, and the audience, but whereas Santa Claus and Ives’ Sam the Snowman were always charming, or at least alright, the Easter Rabbit’s introduction sounds frenzied and affronted. “You don’t know this story, do you? You know all about Santa and Frosty and Rudolph, but not the Easter Rabbit!” is the shorthand version. It makes me think of the Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special, where the Easter Bunny puts a hit out on Santa after years of his holiday being overlooked.
This impassioned rant, of course, loses a lot of its “oomph” when not only does Santa have to step in and show the Easter Rabbit how to do his job, but then swoops in to save the day when, near the end of the special, the badguy seems to be close to winning.
In a strange mash-up of Frosty the Snowman and The Velveteen Rabbit, Stuffy is the stuffed rabbit that’s brought to life after the toy’s owner falls ill and her mother is forced to throw out or burn all of her things to keep them from retaining germs. After being discarded, Stuffy is accosted by a kind of fairy godmother for once-loved toys, who then assigns him the role of The First Easter Rabbit. Explaining that all holidays need an animal totem like Lantern Corps or something.
This she accomplishes by sending Stuffy and three misfit bunnies he encounters along the way to Easter Valley, a kind of antithesis to the North Pole where it’s spring all the time due to the help of a magical golden flower. It’s this flower which Zero, an icebound villain hopes to steal so he can make it as cold and miserable everywhere as it is at the North Pole. Still, apparently the North Pole isn’t all bad. Standing on the cusp of victory, he’s literally talked out of his entire plan when Santa threatens to pack up and move everything to the South Pole, thus depriving Zero of Sunday dinners with the elves.
While the central characters–Zero, Stuffy, Santa and the extra bunnies–are perfectly fine, those of the humans–the little girl who owned Stuffy, her mother and doctor–are just terrible. Flat and emotionless, the mother and daughter talk about a beloved stuffed bunny and the tones of their voices make it sound as if they might in the next breath take their own lives.
The highlights of the story, mostly for their sheer absurdity, are a bird that leads the rabbits’ way to Easter Valley (all it does is hang in the air and squeak like R2D2, but just like the droid in question everyone but the viewer seems to understand what it’s “saying”), and Bruce, the Snowman Head, who rolls around like Meatwad. The sheer awesomeness of Bruce makes me want to give him a special all his own.