The Velveteen Rabbit (2023)

Sitting right on the overlapping portions of a Venn diagram encompassing things that are "very good" and "completely insufferable," the new Apple TV+ live-action/animation hybrid special (they're trying to sell it as a movie, but don't be fooled) feels like the sort of thing that would be divisive if it were streaming on a platform more people actually used. The book this is based on meant a lot to me growing up, though I was a bit taken aback by some of the subtext rereading it now, which comes off as a bit ableist.

This is of course far from the first adaptation of the classic children's book, though it's the first I remember encountering that qualifies as Christmas media under most definitions of the term. While you could make a case that the original is incorporating a trope in which a special Christmas present comes to life, Christmas is basically an afterthought in the book, compared with - say - a similar idea forming the backbone of The Nutcracker. Even The Rocking Horse Winner (whose original story was written relatively soon after the publication of The Velveteen Rabbit) plays up the holiday to a greater extent. But while the book seemed content to use Christmas as a throwaway detail, the special bends over backward to frame its expanded story around the holidays. Whether that constitutes an effective tonal backdrop or cynical marketing strategy is going to be in the eye of the beholder.

The largest change, however, is in the narrative's focus. The book is really just about the rabbit; the child he belongs to is just sort of a nebulous concept - he's never even named, and he has no real personality. But the special elevates him to a co-lead; arguably the main character, supplanting the rabbit. The special opens with him on his last day of school prior to Christmas vacation and - more significantly - prior to his family moving to a larger house in another area. This means William (he's got a name now) is leaving his friends behind, a prospect that doesn't sit well with the boy.

We follow him as he explores his new house, is too timid to ask some kids next door to play, and struggles to adjust. But on Christmas morning, he runs downstairs and finds a toy rabbit in his stocking. He falls in love with it at once - another departure from the original, in which the toy grew on him over time.

Eventually we're shown the rabbit's world, which shifts back into the original story. He's introduced to the toys of the nursery, most of which tease him for not being real enough, the kind old rocking horse takes pity on him and tells him that a child's love makes toys real, and so on. These sequences are mostly done with what appears to be CG mimicking the look of stop-motion.

By the end of Christmas Day, he's taken to William's room (also in line with the book, with the minor alteration that William specifically requests the rabbit as his "bedtime toy"). There, William brings him on the first of a couple imaginary adventures which are presented in shaded cell animation (think Marvel's What If?... or the Spider-Verse movies, though this is nowhere near as refined). I understand what they're going for, but it makes for jarring transitions with the live-action segments.

Around the twenty-minute mark, we leave the initial Christmas section and start jumping ahead through time to see how William and the rabbit are faring. The kid still isn't having much luck fitting in at school or finding any non-imaginary friends, a fact that concerns his parents. William meanwhile keeps escaping into his make-believe world with the rabbit.

Meanwhile, the rabbit is undergoing the same existential crisis he goes through in the book as he grapples with what being real means and whether the label applies to him. The rocking horse continues trying to reassure him, but a run-in with a couple flesh-and-blood rabbits makes him think otherwise. As this is happening, William catches scarlet fever, and a toy is sent for. The other toys hide, knowing that whatever is taken will have to be burned afterward, but out of love for the boy the rabbit elects to go. He helps William get through the illness, but - as predicted - is collected for disposal along with the bedsheets afterward.

But while waiting on the pile, he sheds a tear, which grows into a flower, from which the Nursery Magic Fairy emerges and makes him into a real rabbit. While this is going on, William is told that his favorite toy has been thrown out, and the boy is emotionally devastated. By this time, it's almost Christmas again, though he's no longer excited for the holiday. He receives a toy plane, which he takes out to fly at his parents' insistence. There, he sees the rabbit, now turned real, and recognizes it immediately.

The rabbit signals to him via a callback to one of their animated adventures. He then leads William to the hedge separating their property from the neighbors, which the kid correctly interprets as the rabbit encouraging him to go make friends. He thanks the rabbit, then heads over to talk to the kids as the rabbit leaps triumphantly in the air.

So, this is one of those times I need to acknowledge that I'm reviewing this as an adult in his forties and not as the actual target demographic. I suspect kids will generally react more favorably towards the new ending, but - despite the fact that I'm nowhere near as precious towards this story as I once was - it still feels damn near blasphemous to have William realize what's going on. But, again, this wasn't made for me. And also I have to admit the story they're telling here needs some additional resolution since the kid has been promoted to lead status.

The larger question, of course, is whether doing so was advisable in the first place. The original story is largely built on the premise of inverting the dynamic between the child and his plaything, effectively transforming him into an object and the toy bunny into a character. Making them instead equal participants whose arcs mirror each other loses that aspect of the story. As with everything else here, whether the tradeoffs are worth it will come down to how much you enjoy what this has to offer.

So I should probably get around to acknowledging the merits of this version, which are pretty substantial. First, this looks absolutely gorgeous. Setting aside the fantasy elements, this version is fundamentally a children's historical drama, and it draws inspiration from that genre. It's bright and pleasing to look at, while at the same time feeling grounded in the time and place it's set (which seems to be 1920s England). I'm not an expert on the era and can't speak to the accuracy of finer details, but surface-level things such as identifying the seasonal gift-giver as Father Christmas check out.

Likewise the music is lovely to listen to. Nothing here struck me as a particularly interesting choice, but it's got that generically charming sound movie soundtracks to this sort of thing typically use. It really looks and sounds like a decently budgeted film in the genre (or at least the live-action elements do - we'll talk more about the effects and animation in a bit).

The special's other strong suit comes in the form of several decisions that work. While the ending doesn't sit well with me and I'm torn on some sequences, there are some key moments that feel inspired. For example, when William is feverish, he converses in bed with the rabbit, who's able to speak back. It's a fascinating scene that builds on the already murky borders of reality that have been explored in the fantasy sequences.

It's also worth noting most of the emotional beats hit their marks, though it's difficult to argue this as a strength when the most important one - the ending - feels so hollow. But credit where it's due, as often as not this was successful at manipulating my emotions, no matter how much I resented it.

Unfortunately, the animated sequences didn't work anywhere near as well for me. I'm not adverse to these conceptually, but the modern animation clashes with the historical setting - I'd have been much happier with actual 2D animation, though my guess is kids watching would disagree.

The CG toys are fine for the most part. I like the faux stop-motion effect. While there were moments when the difference between the props and animation were obvious, for the most part it was close enough to not be jarring.

The same most certainly can't be said for the CG rabbits, which have an unnerving uncanny valley effect. I don't think the over-the-top, cheesy ending would have worked even if the rabbit effects had been flawless, but it makes the sequence aggressively obnoxious.

I'm not certain I need to say much more about the Christmas aspects. It seems likely the primary goal in setting this at Christmas was to sell it as a Christmas special, though the decision has a few interesting side effects. In addition to highlighting the "Christmas toy" trope, it also plays into the idea of the holidays and the new year as moments of transformation. By bookending this with the holidays, the special draws attention to beginnings and endings, an idea that's called out directly here.

This is an awkward case where I find myself reluctantly having to acknowledge a piece of entertainment is pretty good, despite some substantial misgivings. From a technical standpoint, this really is well executed, and even from an artistic point-of-view, there are some fascinating choices throughout. It feels like the kind of thing kids might connect with, the way my generation connected with The Christmas Toy despite that special's many flaws.

If you've got kids the right age, it might be worth giving this a shot. Just be aware the process of adapting this resulted in quite a lot of bloat, as well as some cringe-inducing moments.