Velveteen Trouble

You may remember my brief note about the direct-to-DVD adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit, posted a while back.

Now, my friend and colleague Greg Wright has seen the film, and turns in a very positive review.

Wright writes that the movie

….[dragged] me inexorably toward a predictably tear-jerking conclusion that had me dabbing my eyes in spite of my best critical objectivity.

Landon’s period setting is very nicely realized, particularly given the film’s niche-market budget, and the characterizations are really all first-rate. Young film veteran Matthew Harbour does a fine job as Toby, even though his androgynous look is at first rather off-putting, and Una Kay is particularly welcome as Toby’s thawing grandmother. Tom Skerritt and Ellen Burstyn bring a lot of life to Horse and Swan, and newcomer Chandler Wakefield is very appealing as the voice of Rabbit.

I honestly recommend giving this gentle G-rated family film a shot. My colleague at Hollywood Jesus, Mike Furches, says it will become a Christmas staple in his household—and I can see why.

But here’s what interests me. He starts the review like this:

If you’re a fan of Margery Williams’ mini-classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, you might well take a look at the trailer for the DVD and think, as Jeffrey Overstreet did, that it “may be the most horrifying ‘adaptation’ of a children’s classic ever fashioned for the screen.” You might even agree with Steven D. Greydanus, who offered the opinion that it’s “tantamount to a crime against humanity.

If you did agree with those sentiments, though, you might end up wishing—after having actually watched the film—that you weren’t so prone to hyperbole… or bias.

Let me just point out a few things.

First: The suggestion of “bias” — let’s just dismiss that outright. Why would I have a bias? I love the book. I’d hope for a good movie. I have no bias against the director, as I’ve never seen any of his work before. So I’m not sure what’s up with that.

Secondly, let us observe that my one-sentence blurb — which included a link so you could all see the trailer for yourselves and make up your own minds — included two key words: “may be”.

I was not reviewing the film. I was only suggesting that the trailer — the trailer — troubled me. It presented a parade of off-putting details. I did not jump to conclusions. I merely suggested that the content of the trailer was dismaying and gave me a bad feeling.

Was that a horrible thing to say? Let’s consider.

What is the purpose of a trailer? Am I being presumptuous if I presume that the trailer has been prepared to convey what is appealing and best about the movie? Certainly that’s the job of a trailer-maker, yes? To give me a persuasive pitch, and get me out to rent or buy the DVD?

That’s exactly what prompted my response. What I see in the trailer makes me hope that these are the worst moments of the movie: they’re exactly what would inspire me to scratch this selection of my Christmas list for my 22 nephews and neices.

Imagine if someone came to me and said, “I hear you love the book The Velveteen Rabbit.”

I’d say, “Yes. It’s beautiful. It’s a classic for a reason.”

Then this person said, “If you were going to make a really, truly awful adaptation of this book for a film, what would you do to spoil it?”

I would ponder this, and then say:

“I’d fill the story with timeworn platitudes, like those in this trailer, platitudes that sum up the lesson of the movie, so that nobody actually has to think about the story. Platitudes like this one:

“Once he showed them the magic of life, they showed him the magic of love.”

“I would make sure that the bunny talks now like any other cute cartoon character on educational television, quite unlike the rabbit of the book. And I’d have the rabbit advise the boy with Hallmark-card sentiments like:

“Just throw your heart into it and the rest of you will follow.”

“I would be sure to show the boy cavorting with his mother on the same hilltop where Julie Andrews sang “The hills are aliiiiiiive,” and have the camera soar 360 degrees around them.

“In case people hadn’t had enough platitudes yet, I’d throw in another:

“Love is what makes us real.”

“But clearly, this isn’t enough yet. I would want to show something from that inevitable, climactic moment when the boy echoes that great line back:

“Love *does* make us real.”

“That way, moviegoers know that the boy *does* learn his lesson. Wouldn’t want there be any doubt about that.

“But wait, there’s more:

“Sometimes in order to find what you want… “

[insert dramatic pause]

“… you just have to imagine it.”

“And let’s not miss this great opportunity to have the bunny teach the boy to fly, like in Dumbo and Peter Pan, showing him that one must only imagine it is possible.”

Those are the kinds of things I would imagine that would feel like crimes to commit against The Velveteen Rabbit.

So, you can see why the trailer turned me off.

Now, I’m thrilled, albeit a little surprised, to hear that The Velveteen Rabbit is a timeless classic that deserves a place in every good collection of family films. I encourage any of you to give it a try. Let me know what you think of it, and I’ll pass your gratitude on to Greg Wright, who was good enough to see it and post a review.

Whatever the case, I still love the book. I think it has all kinds of power just the way it is. And whatever the movie is like, it makes me sad that a new generation of children are likely to encounter it only after seeing somebody else’s revision. Because clearly, the movie tells a different story.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://jenniferjoystaab.com jennifer staab

    The Velveteen Rabbit is one of those “change your life books” that can hit a person at any time in their life. It’s more than a children’s classic. I would hope than any filmaker would take note of that, but it seems that more often than not, they are interested in making money, not films that are “change your life” thus…. trailers that focus on marketing and selling, not communicating to the audience.

  • http://ptpopcorn.com Greg Wright

    The point of bringing all of that in to open the review is that a great many people will likely have a similar response to the trailer — and that mine, while not as extreme as yours or Steven’s, which merely represent the most extreme examples I ran across, was indeed similar due to my own biases, which I directly address in the review (and did my best to ignore when assessing the trailer).

    Also, a pretty decent percentage of PtP’s readers are familiar with your work and Steven’s, and so are quite possibly familiar with your comments about the trailer.

    If I didn’t think the film was actually pretty decent, it also wouldn’t have been an issue at all — because then the trailer would have given potential viewers a representative sample of what the film itself is like. But in this particular case, the trailer really doesn’t do the film justice. It panders too much, and actually even misrepresents key themes of the film.

    And I’m still pretty irked at myself for having gone and looked at the trailer precisely because of your Facebook posts about it! I think I would have enjoyed the film even more if I hadn’t. But that’s my problem, and not yours. ;>)

  • http://thewesternworld.blogspot.com Ryan H.

    I agree that the trailer for THE VELVETEEN RABBIT looked appallingly bad. If the film is good, well, fine, but the trailer did a horrible job of indicating that.


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