Easter has always been a pretty bizarre holiday: murdered guy who had been entombed pops back out alive, kids scurry around their backyard looking for multicolored treats to jam down their throats.
It was perhaps inevitable that those purveyors of holiday madness, Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., would get in on the Easter action, having already served up plenty of Christmas wackiness to induce either wonder or nightmares, depending on your wiring.
Everybody knows Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph from 1964, which is perhaps their sturdiest, best-made effort. People will tell you that it’s Claymation, though technically it’s “Animagic,” a technique pioneered by Rankin/Bass’s animators. Then there’s 1969’s Frosty, which dispenses with the Animagic to go the straight-up cartoon route. Doubtless you know the Heat and Cold Misers from 1974’s The Year without a Santa Claus, strange demigods of offbeat childhood memories who live on in throwback Halloween costumes.
What you get with Rankin/Bass specials are a lot of happy, tuneful songs that kids seem okay with and parents usually hate, and a ceaseless litany of appearances by Santa, no matter what is going on. If Rankin/Bass had made a porn flick documenting the joys of threesomes, they would have found a way to have Santa show up.
But there is nothing in the Rankin/Bass canon quite like 1976’s The First Easter Rabbit, what has to be the oddest Easter special ever to air in this country.
You’ll probably remember Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman from Rudolph. For whatever reason—maybe he needed cash—Ives decided to come back to the Rankin/Bass universe nearly a dozen years later and narrate and sing what is a singularly disturbing and hilarious origin tale.
Easter fare is almost always incredibly serious. There’s little mirth with the holiday—at least so far as TV specials and movies go. There’s a lot of moralizing, a lot of Jesus, some chariot races. A lot of Bing Crosby. If you find all of that too heavy, here is your antidote.
When we first see our man Mr. Ives—in cartoon form—he’s a plump rabbit with disturbingly red cheeks; what you’d imagine the dirty-old-man version of a hare to look like. He is here to tell us how the whole rabbit-hiding-eggs-at-Easter biz got started.
Cut to a cute little girl, Glinda, who has a stuffed animal Rabbit with the less-than-imaginative name of Stuffy (voiced by Robert Morse, aka Mad Men’s Bert Cooper). She loves him very much. Unfortunately, we learn from a doctor named Jonathan that she has scarlet fever. Glinda’s mom, though, has no problem responding to the doctor’s flirtations with some of her own. They carry on right there, as the kid lays dying. A solution is hit upon to burn all of her clothes, and, what’s more, Stuffy.
Stuffy is tossed in a pile of stuffed animals outside the house—for it is pogrom time—when a fairy godmother-type creature appears and tells him that he must become the first Easter Rabbit. Stuffy is incredulous, but nonetheless, he’d rather get in on this Easter start-up venture rather than be roasted, so the fairy godmother makes him a real rabbit, and off he hops.
Rankin/Bass always feature a central character heading out on his or her own. Part of me thinks that’s a metaphor for children who feel like they’re cut off from their peers. But the problem is, the displaced hero usually ends up with some shady-ass drifters and is so desperate for companionship that any and all friends are welcomed without a single inquiry of, “Hey, dude, what are you up to wandering around here in the middle of the woods late at night?”
So it is that Stuffy, who is traveling to Easter Valley, meets with three criminal rabbits: Spats, Whiskers, and Flops. And yes, Spats wears spats. But their crime business isn’t working out—bummer—so they’ll lend a hand and become employees for Stuffy’s Easter undertaking. Alas, there is a cadaverous snow wizard named Zero who hates Easter, even though, it seems, Easter as we know it doesn’t really exist yet. His henchman is a bluish snowball named Bruce who looks like a frosty testicle.
Everyone who says Bruce’s name rolls the “r.” If matters were not weird enough, Santa makes his appearance in Easter Valley, where he just happens to be hanging out. He and Stuffy have a colloquy, Santa goes all meta and references 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and warns Stuffy that this kind of job can be a huge pain in the ass, with you working working your scut off for a lot of ingrates.
Zero dials up a massive snowstorm, Stuffy and his three mates can’t get out of their house to deliver the first Easter eggs, so Bruce, who has had enough—for he is a snow testicle with a conscience, at least—walks out on Zero, finds Santa at some random cottage in the middle of the woods, and pleads with the big guy to intercede.
Curiously, Santa is usually a bad person in Rankin-Bass specials. He is defiantly sexist, and maintains a serious grudge. Some of the playfulness of this special must get to him, though—or maybe it’s the arrival of spring, which generally does all of us good—but he charms over Zero by telling him he’s thinking about accepting an offer made to him to buy some property at the South Pole. Turns out he and Zero are good buddies on the social circuit, with the latter palling it up with Mrs. Clause as we learn in a “you have to be kidding me” moment of insinuation, and taking late-night joy rides, solo-style, on Santa’s sled. If you look closely, you can see Rudolph, too, because hey, why not, right?
This is as much a mad, Beckett-like dream of what a holiday cartoon should be as it is an actual holiday cartoon. The endgame is something straight out of Buñuel, too: Stuffy hightails it back to Glinda, who looked like she had been left for dead. There’s going to be a parade, the doctor has fully romanced Glinda’s mom, and then we cut back to poor Burl Ives in old/fat-rabbit form. He tells us that he was Stuffy, he’s just done some time-traveling, and he started that whole Easter rabbit thing, so suck on that.
Could you even make something like this these days? If it ever somehow aired once, could it ever air again? What would be the outcry, the level of mockery?
But that’s what I love about Rankin/Bass, and this special in particular. For all of the lovey-doveyness, there’s this spirit of, hey, we can imagine whatever we wish to imagine, and the holidays make us imagine a lot—some of it nuts, some of it cool, and this is some of what we’ve been thinking.
It’s oddly liberating: Think like a kid. Think like you did when you didn’t worry if you were going to get in trouble for daring to say something you thought. There’s just something vastly more human about that—more alive, more of the very essence of what it means to try to connect with people by sharing your enthusiasms.
And if they have a problem with that, screw ‘em, Rankin-Bass specials like The First Easter Rabbit seem to say—there’s always someone better you’ll encounter in the woods. Metaphorically speaking.