Rabbits don’t come any more ingrained in British heritage than the subject of Beatrix Potter’s classic, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and now we have the first film adaptation coming to our screens. When Walt Disney expressed an interest in making a Peter Rabbit film back in 1936 – Beatrix Potter flatly refused them. So 80 years later someone has finally gathered up the courage to try again and now we have an ambitious, star-studded attempt at Peter’s first movie joining the likes of Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh in the list of classic literary animals making it to the big screen. And Peter is by no means the first rabbit to make the leap to cinema and the territory comes with a long history. So we thought this month we would look at some of the other iconic cinematic rabbits (you can’t say we don’t do niche stuff…)
If you haven’t see this gem from the 1950s – let us break it down for you: the incredibly prolific and talented James Stewart played a social outcast called Elwood whose best friend was an invisible 6 ft 3 and a half inch rabbit called Harvey…. who can also stop time. Sounds horrifying right? Contrary to how it sounds on paper, Harvey is a comedy-drama where attempts to diagnose Elwood as psychologically unhinged go awry as more and more people begin to ‘see’ Harvey and confirm his existence. Harvey, although a bizarre idea, is a brilliant exploration of the power of the imagination and an early example of the cinematic trope of humans and rabbits appearing side-by-side on screen. So if you ever find a 6 ft 3 rabbit beside you no one else can see – don’t panic, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship.
Space Jam (1996)
The live-animation classic Space Jam features not one but two iconic bunnies: the prolific Bugs Bunny and his love interest Lola Bunny. When Bugs Bunny and all the other male characters aren’t drooling over Lola Bunny’s gyrating however, the two are part of a Basketball team that ask real-world basketball player Michael Jordan to help them win a match against some outer space creatures and win their freedom. How the film was ever pitched is anyone’s guess and the idea of a sexy rabbit is, in hindsight, super weird. However, when you’re a kid these things don’t register and these crude but plucky rabbits proved themselves as legitimate heroes through a game of basketball. And the age of rabbits and humans coming together to conquer the court is far from over, with rumours of a Space Jam 2 on the horizon – a mere 20ish years later.
Watership Down (1978)
Based on the 1972 novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down is entirely based around a group of rabbits whose warren is destroyed and they are forced to seek out a new home. Although these rabbits don’t have human pals like the others on our list, the rabbits of this feature come with their own culture and mythology and are depicted in a very human way. Although this all sounds quite cute, the journey the rabbits of Watership Down embark on is a dangerous one filled with death, fear and temptation. Blurring the lines between humans and animals, the rabbits of this film go through a similar ‘coming-of-age’ experience to most human characters in cinema: forced to grow up fast in order to survive a cruel world when the concept of home becomes an uncertainty. Or maybe we are just trying to convince ourselves it is OK to have a little cry…
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
It seems the cinematic connection between rabbits and mankind is a strong one, but no film draws quite so bonkers a link as Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. When classic Aardman stop-motion character Wallace makes another of his malfunctioning inventions, he still believes he has managed to succeed in brainwashing ‘Hutch’ the rabbit into disliking vegetables. But when the local produce starts being consumed at a ferocious rate, it transpires that the human and rabbit DNA has fused creating a terrifying were-rabbit that is out for vegetable flesh… OK perhaps not a petrifying concept, but it sure results in a chaotic outcome.
Donnie Darko (2001)
You know what we said earlier about not panicking over big, invisible rabbits? Maybe we take that back. ‘Frank’ is another example of a rabbit figure representing a manifestation of the imagination. Unlike Harvey, however, Donnie Darko makes no attempts to depict Frank as a potentially lovable character and most first-viewings consist of hiding behind a pillow hoping someone kills him. Unfortunately, when Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally does kill him, it turns out to be the wrong version of him. Time travel is a hard master. Frank is a mostly static figure who speaks to Donnie in a gargling, echoed voice whilst sporting a saggy, horrifying rabbit costume that was presumably made by someone who hated forest creatures. Yes, Frank certainly undoes all the good work that had been done by the other films on this list to make rabbits likeable and cute. Or at the very least, you wouldn’t want him as your first pet.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Much like Space Jam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit utilises 2-D cartoons in this live-action animation to interact fictional characters with real people. The film’s protagonist, Roger Rabbit, is a comical, slap-stick character who is framed for the murder of a man who flirted with his Mrs Jessica Rabbit… who is unexplainably human but also a cartoon. Once again brushing the slightly uncomfortable sexy-cartoon rabbit-human relationship theme aside, the animation aligns Roger Rabbit and the other toons as fellow human beings with emotions, weaknesses and desires. From the earliest films on our list to the more recent additions, it is clear to see rabbit figures have established a significance alongside people in film. After all, the question is ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ not ‘why is Roger a rabbit getting drunk and married to a human?’.
So whether they are depicted as man’s best furry friend, inappropriately sexual or a much darker fragment of our identity – rabbits have a long and complex tradition in cinema. It will be interesting to see how the new Peter Rabbit film fits into this convention. Are there any rabbits in movies you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below.