Magic Light Pictures’ charming new special blends live-action, stop-motion, 3D, and 2D animation to reimagine Margery Williams’ classic story of a child who, with his new favorite toy, discovers lifelong friendship and a world of magic; now streaming on Apple TV+.
The holidays are when remakes and reimaginings come out of the cinema woodwork, igniting people’s nostalgia as they gather around the living room with family and stuff their faces with homemade cookies and other sweets to capture that glorious sugar rush they cherished as kids.
It’s the perfect time to revisit classics and utilize the tactile magic of stop-motion animation to remind audiences of all ages that dreams never die and imagination should be fostered. At least, that was the mindset of Magic Light Pictures co-founder Martin Pope and writer Tom Bidwell when they decided to revisit the century-old story of The Velveteen Rabbit.
Pope, who serves as executive producer, and Bidwell (creator of the BAFTA-nominated and International Emmy-nominated My Mad Fat Diary and the Oscar-nominated short Wish 143), celebrate the magic of unconditional love in their 40-minute special about a seven-year-old boy named William who receives a new favorite toy rabbit for Christmas and not only discovers a lifelong friend, but also unlocks a world of magic. The film – which combines live-action with stop-motion, 3D and 2D animation – released globally on Apple TV+ this past Wednesday, November 22.
The Velveteen Rabbit, based on Margery Williams’ classic children’s book of the same name, features the voices of Phoenix Laroche (The Royal Nanny) as “William;” the all-star cast includes the voices of Alex Lawther (Andor) as “the Velveteen Rabbit,” Academy Award nominee Helena Bonham Carter (The Crown, Harry Potter) as “Wise Horse,” Nicola Coughlan (Bridgerton) as “Playroom Fairy,” Bethany Antonia (House of Dragon) as “Female Rabbit,” Lois Chimimba (Still Up) as “Car,” Paterson Joseph (Vigil) as “King,” Clive Rowe (So Awkward) as “Lion,” Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) as “Male Rabbit,” and Tilly Vosburgh (Inside Man) as “Momo,” as well as Samantha Colley (Genius) as “Mother” and Leonard Buckley (The Great) as “Father.”
The hybrid special was directed by Jennifer Perrott and Rick Thiele, produced by the joint efforts of Magic Light Pictures – known for Gruffalo and Revolting Rhymes – and their friends in London at both Red Knuckles Studios and Arch Model Studio (AMS). AWN chatted with Bidwell and Pope about the origins of this remake, how the multi-media visuals in the story came together, the timeless fascination children have with toy rabbits, and the challenges of creating a sequence as “simple” as a rabbit rubbing its nose.
But first, check out the trailer:
Victoria Davis: This is a story that’s been adapted many times before. What made you both feel that this new reimagining was warranted? And that now was the time for it to be reintroduced to audiences?
Martin Pope: The Velveteen Rabbit is over a hundred years old and has a rich history of engaging and moving readers. We wanted to explore the story afresh, bringing out the dual stories of the Rabbit and the boy, William, whose stories are so interwoven with each other’s. Tom’s script brilliantly enables us to see how and why Rabbit comes alive and why William and Rabbit need each other.
Tom Bidwell: At the same time, we were aware that contemporary animation techniques would allow us to explore Rabbit’s understanding of what “becoming real” means. We could show Rabbit not only moving and talking, but sharing imaginative adventures with the boy, which feel real to them, and, of course, becoming a wild rabbit himself in the material world.
VD: As a parent, I have to ask what makes a stuffed rabbit so captivating to a child? There have been numerous children’s stories featuring a young rabbit and my daughter has about 50 stuffed rabbits of her own that she can’t bear to part with. Why do these creatures mean so much to children and lend themselves so well to children’s storytelling?
TB: Rabbits are wonderful, unthreatening animals with brilliantly expressive faces and ears. Maybe that’s what draws children to them. But we think what really captivates children is the imaginative idea that their toy rabbits, and other toys they may possess, are real, that they can come alive, and that toys feel emotions and understand the children themselves. Children feel the imaginative world is “real” and they know their toys understand that.
VD: As you’ve expressed, there are a lot of different animations in this special. How many animation companies did you work with to pull this off?
MP: For the animation, we worked with the brilliant team at Red Knuckles, led by their excellent director Rick Thiele and we had the hugely experienced Simon Quinn working with us as well. The Red Knuckles team managed all the different animations including scenes where different styles of animation meet. We’re so delighted with the outstanding work they did as they’ve really pulled off a great feat.
VD: Had it always been the plan to include so many different types of visuals?
MP: At Magic Light Pictures, our focus is on communicating great stories to a wide audience in the best possible way. We produce live-action, animation, and, in the case of this film, anything in-between! So, as we explored the story with Tom at script stage, it became clear that we wanted to see William’s rabbit come alive and meet the other toys. We wanted to see William and Rabbit go on adventures together and, eventually, once Rabbit had really discovered what love means, then we wanted to see him become a wild rabbit. So, the different types of visuals grew out of the storytelling.
VD: How was it decided what animations and styles would be included in the film? How does each one service the story?
MP: The wonderful prop Rabbit, built by Andy Gent’s team at AMS, had to be seen as it first began to start moving. Rabbit has to have an emotional connection with the other toys and have important discussions with Horse, so it was clear they’d all be moving as if they were in stop-motion, but with their movements limited by their toy construction and their understanding of the world limited by their toy perspective.
TB: Then, when Rabbit meets some wild rabbits and later becomes one himself, it was clear that we needed furred wild rabbits. In between those two story points, we had the imaginative adventures, so we went through some visual exploration, and, together with Rick, we came up with the more graphic look of the worlds these characters step into.
VD: Was there one animation style that proved particularly challenging to get just right? What made it difficult and how were those challenges overcome?
TB: One lovely but challenging thing about animation is that it’s always a surprise. The bits you thought were going to be hard turn out to be less of a challenge, and then other things you’d thought should be straightforward can be difficult. But at Magic Light we always know that the quality of the storytelling is going to depend in huge part on having great character animation, so it’s something we’re always pushing, and the Red Knuckles team came up to the mark brilliantly.
MP: But of all the delightful challenges which Tom’s script presented us, perhaps the most difficult was the seemingly simple one of Rabbit rubbing his nose, both in the graphic world and as a wild rabbit. The nose rub had to mimic what the child playing William was filmed doing, but that’s hard as wild rabbits don’t have the same arms as children. But, once more, Rick and his team pulled it off and it looks great.
VD: What was an animation style or sequence you both enjoyed seeing brought to life?
MP & TB: In a way, it’s a simple scene. But one of the emotional high points for both of us is when Rabbit is lying in bed with William, when the boy’s sick, and Rabbit is helping him to be brave, telling him that he’s “perfect the way you are.” We filmed the live-action scene with the prop Rabbit and then brought him to life with Alex Lawther’s voice, and we think the scene is hugely moving as a result with some wonderful and understated character animation.
VD: Do either of you have children of your own who will be watching this special when it releases? What do you hope they, and other children watching, get out of this story and visual feast?
MP & TB: One of the joys of creating this sort of show is that we can sit down with our own children and watch it together. We are always looking to create children's programming that we would want our children to enjoy; shows that encourage imagination and kindness. The story of The Velveteen Rabbit encapsulates both those things so beautifully and they are the perfect themes to be enjoying as we go into the holiday season.
Ultimately, we both loved watching holiday specials as children (and still do). There is a magic about festive stories that lives long in the memory and the heart and it's a privilege to play a part in creating that kind of magic for a new generation.