Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
For folks of my generation, we grew up on the holiday specials created by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin. That pair produced and/or directed a slew of programs that started with 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and included other notables such as 1969’s Frosty the Snowman and 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus. Other than 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s hard to think of any prominent Christmas TV classics on which the two didn’t work.
Less well know, however, are the Rankin-Bass excursions into other holidays. Probably the best known is 1975’s Rudolph’s Shiny New Year. Included as an extra on the Year Without a Santa Claus DVD, this program shows our favorite reindeer as he tries to rescue the baby New Year. (Rudy made a final Rankin-Bass appearance in 1979’s Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas In July.)
A look down the Rankin-Bass résumé shows that while Christmas dominated their holiday-related work, they did indeed expand into other times of the year. They never went quite as nuts as the Peanuts franchise - that crew actually produced It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown - but Rankin-Bass also spread their celebratory wings to a minor degree.
To my surprise, they moved away from Christmas fairly early. After Rudolph, their next holiday special looked at Thanksgiving with 1968’s Mouse on the Mayflower. They quickly followed this with that year’s debut of The Little Drummer Boy and they offered two more consecutive years with new Christmas shows: 1969’s Frosty and 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.
After that, we kids only needed to wait a few short months for the next Rankin-Bass extravaganza, 1971’s Here Comes Peter Cottontail. Aimed at the Easter crowd, this would be the first of two Rankin-Bass shows for that holiday; they also created 1977’s The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town. That one seemed to end their attempts to entertain for Easter.
I have no idea when I last saw Cottontail, though I recognized enough of it to know I must have watched it a few times as a kid. Not yet four when it first aired, I likely checked out its premiere, as a matter of fact.
Chances are good I liked it a lot more back then. While I retain an affection for the better Rankin-Bass productions, Cottontail was a clunker that seemed to have little inspiration or spirit of its own.
In Cottontail, we meet the eponymous Peter (voiced by Casey Kasem). He’s been handpicked to become the new Chief Easter Bunny of April Valley, but evil and bitter Irontail (Vincent Price) challenges him for the throne. Of course, no one wants that nasty rabbit to be their representative, but legally he has the right for the job, so he and Peter stage a contest. Whichever one delivers the most eggs on Easter wins the job.
Irontail doesn’t play by the rules. He sabotages Peter’s alarm clock, and the pooped bunny - who stayed out late and partied the night before - sleeps all the way through Easter. Irontail only gives out one egg - to a sleeping hobo - but that’s enough for him to claim the title, and he quickly attempts to remake April Valley in his own dark and sinister image.
Despondent and depressed, Peter wishes to make things right, and he gets his chance when he encounters local magician Seymour S. Sassafrass (Danny Kaye, who also acts as narrator). He offers Peter the use of his Yester-Morrowbile, a time-travelling device. With it and pilot Antoine the worm (Kaye again), Peter can easily zip back a few days and correct his mistake.
Alas, would that things were that simple! Unfortunately, a mishap caused by Irontail steers them off-course and they land on Mother’s Day. Peter attempts to give away eggs, but no one wants Easter eggs on Mother’s Day. When his travels next take him to the Fourth of July, a quick-thinking Peter paints the eggs in patriotic tones and tries to pass them off as fireworks. This gets rid of the whole basket, but when some kids learn they’ve been duped, they angrily return them to Peter.
More holidays ensue, and Peter continues to try to use trickery to rid himself of the eggs. By use of compliments, he gets a Halloween witch to accept one, and her ghoulish friends all line up to get their own. However, Irontail sabotages this and Peter loses the chance.
He then zooms through Christmas and Valentine’s Day. At the latter, he meets and falls for a sexy babe bunny named Donna, and he seems ready to disseminate his eggs, but Irontail curses them and turns them all putrid green. Fair-weather Donna wants no green eggs, so Peter slinks away to the next holiday.
President’s Day goes nowhere, so Peter almost admits defeat. Who’d ever want green eggs, moans the moron. Of course, he soon lands on St. Patrick’s Day - figure out the rest for yourself.
Possibly the best thing about Cottontail stemmed from the possibility that it influenced 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Actually, all they shared was the notion of folks oriented with one holiday dealing with each other. I have no idea if Tim Burton or anyone involved with Christmas actually took any inspiration from Cottontail, but it certainly seems possible; Burton’s love of Vincent Price sure makes it probable that he was aware of the show.
Otherwise, I thought Cottontail was something of a dud. Although oriented at kids, many of the other Rankin-Bass pieces work pretty well for adults, especially those that use the stop-motion “animagic” techniques seen here. How much of our affection for these results from simple nostalgia I can’t say, but I don’t think fond remembrances tell the whole tale. Hey, the Heat Miser/Snow Miser tunes from Year Without a Santa Claus rock on an absolute level!
Nothing nearly as memorable happens in Cottontail the various songs are limp and forgettable, and the story’s a confused mess. While I recognize that it’s just a cheesy TV show not meant to stand up to scrutiny - it is about the Easter bunny, after all - I still thought the storytelling seemed awfully sloppy. Peter’s supposed to go back in time to fix things, but due to Irontail’s sabotage, he goes forward instead. Doesn’t this mean that the contest is moot? I mean, Irontail won - the only way to change that would be to alter things prior to that fact.
The distribution of eggs also makes little sense. Since Irontail only gave away one egg, this means Peter should win if he ditches two of them. The Fourth of July boys had to use at least one; they must have smashed one to establish they weren’t actually firecrackers. As such, they accepted one of the eggs, though they returned the others. The Halloween witch also took an egg, so there’s Peter’s two eggs - game over, man!
I know, I know - it’s stupid for me to nit-pick an Easter bunny show, but I think this kind of carelessness comes through subliminally. Even if one doesn’t consciously notice the mistakes, I feel they come through in the end and make the show less involving.
To be honest, I thought Cottontail would be a moderately charming and entertaining piece, but honestly, there was little spark or fun to go around here. Even with vets like Kaye and Price, the voice acting seemed lackluster, and though the story had some potential, the messy execution of it distinctly harms the program. Here Comes Peter Cottontail seemed like a bland and lifeless holiday program that doesn’t measure up with the better offerings in the genre.