Among our collection of recorded-off-TV VHS cassettes (Kids, ask your parents), was one in particular that had our one and only copy of Mary Poppins (Shameless plug: here’s my review of it here.) and the subject of today’s review. It was recorded in 1986, and right before the movie was a curious minute-long intro. It featured a scruffy-looking man casually strolling through the autumnal woods in a red jacket and khakis, hands firmly in his pockets. With a mellow, crisp voice, he navigated the terrain casually, and told his viewers about a story idea he and his daughter Cheryl came up with. They had watched a bunch of rabbits in a park hop out of the brush to gather, until a large, excited dog ran up and caused them all to scatter. The man and his daughter came up with the idea that would become this adorable one-shot. When he finished relaying this anecdote, he paused by a tree and began the show by literally saying, “Once Upon a Time…”
The man was the late, great Jim Henson. And back then, I had no idea who the guy was, much less that pneumonia would claim him four years later.
But aside from having this rare, exclusive moment with the man who gave us the Muppets and Sesame Street, I was also given a special from Jim Henson Productions that has gone almost completely unnoticed. How unnoticed? It had two VHS releases, one in 1986 and one in 1993, but no DVD or Blu-Ray release since. The characters have had almost no impact to the average Muppet fan. This was, however, the first appearance of Bean Bunny.
Bean is an oft-forgotten Muppet character who might be best known to average fans as the caroler in The Muppet Christmas Carol. He even appeared in a few episodes of the original Muppet Babies TV show. But Henson must have had high hopes for little Bean, as he was in the now-defunct attractions Here Come The Muppets and Muppets on Location: Days of Swine and Roses at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (then Disney-MGM Studios). Today, he is the focal character in Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D.
So I want to share this with you out there. While most of the media I consumed as a child has been seen by most everyone else, let me share this little bit of my history that seems completely erased by the sands of time. Buzz by in boisterous bits and bounce with bucolic bunnies!
The plot: The bunnies are all gathered ’round to set up the annual springtime shindig known as the Bunny Picnic. Bean Bunny (Steve Whitmire) wants desperately to help, but his older brother, Lugsy (Richard Hunt) would rather demean and tease his sibling for being too small to do so. Bean sulks off to the nearby farmer’s lettuce patch, where he encounters a large, orange dog (Jim Henson), who gives chase. Bean barely escapes, but when he tells everyone about the dog, no one – least of all Lugsy – believes him.
Meanwhile, the dog is determined to hunt down and get all the bunnies, but not because he’s mean, but his owner, the farmer, is a cruel man who wants him to catch rabbits for stew, and denies the dog even basic necessities until he does so.
How’s the writing?: This story was instantly “gettable” to me as a young child. Partly because it had a premise that made sense. Also partly because I was the youngest of three myself, just like Bean. And I often felt unimportant or ignored, as most young children do. But also, what’s worth noting is this movie was definitely made for kids.
Now when I say “made for kids”, there is a distinct difference between this and Mickey, Donald, and Goofy: The Three Musketeers. In that movie, I thought the tone felt it needed to talk down to children. Like it needed farts or anachronisms or crazy slapstick for fear it was going to lose children’s attention. Here, the pace is very natural. There are no references to modern culture (The one exception being the sunglasses-wearing Bebop, voiced by Elmo/Baby Sinclair himself, Kevin Clash). The jokes are naturally told through the characters’ personalities, not through metatextual winks to the camera. There were also real emotional stakes.
Also of note: the bunnies and the dog all say “bunnies”, whereas the only the Farmer refers to them as “rabbits”. It’s a neat way to portray the dissonance of the adorable fur critters and angry, shadowed “adult” character.
Does it give the feels?: This is Bean’s story, through and through. He is the one with the most arc, struggling to overcome his feelings of helplessness and insecurity. Even after the dog finally shows up at the event and his claims are validated, he still struggles to earn Lugsy’s respect. Bean’s feeling of rejection is well-founded, considering how merciless Lugsy could be. It’s no wonder he fantasizes about being king of the Bunny Picnic, a Fire-breathing dragon, a nasty old owl, a weasel, a giant hedgehog, or even a tree. He just wants to be respected, and that’s a pretty universal feeling.
But that’s only part of it. If you’re an animal lover, this movie is gonna make you angry. The dog is shown to not have a very good master. The farmer shouts at him all the time, and the dog cowers in terror every time he’s around. He reminds the dog he only “dragged him outta that dump” was so he could fetch him rabbits to stew. He refuses to feed him or give him a name until he does so. And that one moment he tugs on the dog’s ear and smacks him on the nose…that’s gonna make some dog owners (and plenty of animal lovers in general) see red. He’s a muppet, sure, but he’s still a helpless dog who doesn’t deserve that.
Who makes it worth it?: The absolute best character here is the dog.
Played immaculately by Henson himself, using his Rowlf the Dog/Dr. Teeth voice, the dog is a giant sweetheart in a very sticky situation. While he doesn’t seem to care much for the bunnies, he is eager to do what he needs if it means having a full belly or just to not be in mortal terror. But on top of all that, he’s not too terribly bright…sorta.
On the surface, he seems to be a pretty goofy mutt. He talks to himself all the time, as though he can only understand what’s going on if he hears it first. This is definitely something for the kids, given the muppet’s limited range of expressions, but it’s also deeply rooted as part of his personality. Especially when he prattles on about what fierce and mighty hunter he believes himself to be.
Also, he doesn’t bark. Well, scratch that. He does bark, but in the most literal sense. He actually says the words “Bark”, “Woof”, and “Sniff” out loud. It’s really cute, as if he hadn’t quite figured out how to bark, so he just shouted the words and thought that’s all he had to do.
Best quality provided: I am sorely, sorely disappointed the songs have never become huge hits. It’s not because the movie is not famous: everyone knows “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah”, but almost no one has seen Song of the South. These songs are catchy, fun, and really powerful. Let me outline three of them.
The opening and closing song, “Hello Sunshine” is outrageously catchy. It only has one repeated, four-line verse, interspersed with bridges of the bunnies repeating “hop!”, but hot damn, do they pack in so much joy and enthusiasm into every note. Sadly, I can’t make out that fourth line, given the fuzzy eighties’ audio track and lack of subtitles or lyrics anywhere. But man, is it a fun song to sing.
The dog’s song, “Run Bunny Run” is equally as fun and enthusiastic. As he stalks Bean, he loudly croons and howls what a fast, strong, stealthy hunter he is, and how he’s gonna bring the hammer down on all the bunnies. It’s the kind of bluster you expect a kid to bellow when he’s imagining being the best at something, particularly when he has no idea what his skill set actually is.
Third is “Drums of Time”, and this song really, really gets to me. After Trump was elected and there were protests after protests for things like climate change and women’s rights, I was proud to see all these people doing something so powerful. They had no true leverage, but they stood together amid bleak odds and rallied for change nonviolently, despite being exhausted from the status quo keeping them down. Like “Hello Sunshine”, I can only understand part of the song, the opening two verses, which are plenty strongly-worded as is. The rest are buried under counterpoint, and the rest is blurred as all the bunnies sing together. But just from what I can glean, it feels raw and truly inspirational, especially for a cutesy muppet movie for kids, that teaches “Those who hurt others, hurt themselves”. It’s just that good.
The other songs are pretty good. “When You’re Little” is pretty sweet, if somber. “Bunny Go High and Go Low” is a very legato lullaby. And “Follow Me” is similarly very bouncy and catchy, again, if you can catch all the lyrics. Seriously, though. If anyone knows the lyrics or knows where to find them, hit me up. I will buy you all the coffee.
What could have been improved: Why did this movie disappear?
No, really. Why? What happened? Were the Nielsen ratings that low for HBO? Did Cheryl disapprove the way her story turned out? Was Steve Whitmire already causing trouble long before his well-publicized firing in 2017? Tell me! Because I have no idea why this movie faded away the way it did, especially given the pursuit of Bean in other projects. My only theory is Henson’s death in 1990 and the relationship with the Disney company probably drowned it into anonymity. By the mid-nineties, Disney was already producing Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, as well as shows like Dinosaurs, Bear in the Big Blue House, and Muppets Tonight, and re-releasing The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper on VHS. There probably just wasn’t room to revive a one-off 40-minute HBO special about cute bunny rabbits. And honestly, it’s a real shame.
And now, given the free flow of content courtesy of the information superhighway, I can finally find out more about it, thank goodness. And while I’m glad I can find it on YouTube, it’s not the same as having a physical copy or a file on Vudu. With YouTube, the copyright bots can take it away at any given moment. At this point, my best best is to find one of the off-brand DVD’s. I guess I can’t be picky.
Verdict: I can’t recommend this special enough. Even if adorable muppet bunnies sounds childish, I assure you it has some mature qualities to it, right down to the film’s lesson, as taught to the bunnies through the Storyteller’s puppet show: Those who hurt others hurt themselves. It’s absolutely an unsung gem in the Muppet canon. I officially declare The Tale of the Bunny Picnic officially to win ten sleeping potions out of ten.
And now I will finish this review. Because that’s what I do when I finish talking about a movie, especially one I love from the bottom of my doggy toe. And one day, I’ll get a copy or my name’s not…my name’s not…whatever it is.
What a cute ending.