Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Velveteen Rabbit

I have to admit, while growing up I followed Michael Landon Sr. and his work. I really liked and admired him. I felt that after his death we had all lost something valuable. Society needed someone to drive home the concept of family. I was cautious when his son Michael Landon Jr. came onto the scene and appeared to take over his fathers’ vision and work. Despite the caution, I have been pleased with his efforts, and after seeing The Velveteen Rabbit which Michael Landon Jr. wrote, and directed, I have to say, I think his father would have been so proud of what his son is doing. Landon Jr. is keeping the family movie, alive with integrity and quality. For me, The Velveteen Rabbit is without question, one of the year’s big surprises.

Sometimes I get advance screeners worth watching, and others that are a waste of time. When getting The Velveteen Rabbit, I was expecting a hokey animation story done trying to capitalize off a popular story. What I got was a live action / animation blend with a very good story that was extremely entertaining and very moving emotionally. Michael Landon Jr. has directed and provided a movie sure to surprise many who see it. It is so good that I would have liked to have seen wide spread commercial theatrical release. The timing of the release of the movie is the only thing I personally question. This classic story, with a strong Christmas theme is beautiful. It isn’t the first time a potential Christmas Classic has been released outside of the Christmas season, can anyone say, It’s a Wonderful Life. While this surely won’t become as big as that movie, few will, it is destined, at least in my house, to be a regular Christmas viewing.

The first thing I noticed about The Velveteen Rabbit is the cast. While the part of Mom played by Jane Seymour is minimal we actually see quite substantive roles given by Tom Skerritt who plays Horse, and Ellen Burstyn who plays the part of Swan. Between these three we have numerous awards from Emmy’s to Oscar’s. All give credence to their craft in their contribution to the animated segments in the film. The quality doesn’t stop there in the acting. I was also quite impressed with the young boy Toby played by Matthew Harbour. This youngster gives depth to his part, and is a young man the viewer finds themselves caring for. He is surrounded by other notables like Kevin Jubinville who plays Toby’s father, John, his grandmother Ellen played Una Kay also provides wonderful depth as Toby’s grandmother. You find yourself disliking her, and then growing with her character as her character grows. Another wonderful portrayal is by Michael Sinelnkoff who plays the Butler. While having minimal screen time, he provides a voice of reason in this fascinating and addictive story.

I was concerned about the blending of animation with live action, but Landon does a very good job of blending the two to where it is not a distraction. The quality editing, direction, cinematography and periodic costuming is done very nicely and given the detail expected in a major theatrical release. I was impressed with other components of the film often neglected. The quality of sound and lighting were very well done. These are things I seldom make mention of but the effort here is worthy.

The story develops as Toby’s dad, takes him to spend the Christmas Holidays with his grandmother. Toby has lost the joy of family in the death of his mother and his father has never adjusted. Instead of giving Toby the time he needs, he isolates him and spends most of his time at work. This old tale as portrayed in the song Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin, is a reminder of not only fathers but adults who take time away from their children’s lives. Unfortunately for Toby, just like many other children, the adult presence with the child is limited because there is just too much going on for adults to spend time with children. In fact, Toby hasn’t even learned the most basic of skills for a boy, how to throw a ball.

While at his grandmothers, Toby finds a magic attic and it is here that life lessons occur, for Toby but also the viewer if they allow. Toby befriends a stuffed rabbit, and while shedding a tear, the rabbit comes to life and Toby discovers an animated world where he discovers love. It is here that children, in their imaginations discover the things God intended for them, often in the little things we can even learn in the faith of a child.

My son loved the television star, Lassie. I used to watch Lassie every Sunday night on television when I was young. My son, Nathan took it a step further, he would go around for what seemed like hours pretending to be Lassie, never speaking but barking, and doing all of the things Lassie did. I could have, like other parents, ignored this, but my wife quickly taught me this was okay, and to play along. We did, and I still treasure the moments of having Lassie follow me around on all fours as I would give her a treat for being such a good dog. While some think these things were crazy, we knew God gave the imagination of a child to the children for a reason. The treasured moments of spending that time with my own children, who are now both grown, is something that built relationship, it was showing each other love. The Velveteen Rabbit takes this concept of loving and being there for your children to a level that not only children will appreciate, but so will the adult audience.

As Toby goes through his journey, many things happen. We see the results of what occurs when a parent is too busy to provide these moments. The Velveteen Rabbit also shows the joy that occurs when these moments are allowed to occur. We see transformation in the lives of the live action characters, but also in the lives of the animated characters. There is one tragic scene where we learn that no greater love has any toy than to give up their life for a boy. This is an obvious lesson on the passage from the Bible that talks about loving each other.

There are other lessons and examples; we see an illustration of the great Michelangelo art, The Hand of God where we see God reaching down to touch humanity. The touch of a loving parent can resemble in some ways the touch from God. We see illustrations that loving another are worth the risk and when giving love to others we discover life. There is a concept presented that love makes us real but a beautiful reminder that it’s not love that makes us real, it is loving that makes us real. Learning to love means simple things like playing ball together, teaching a child how to hold a bat, knit a darn, it involves spending time with each other, doing things together.

Just as in real life, there are few excuses. We have all had lessons in our life; we know the joys, hurts, pains, and wants. We have people who still get it to give us reminders. One example of this in The Velveteen Rabbit is Neil, a Christmas tree salesman. While a small part, it gives illustrations and lessons to this point. We all have those reminders, unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy, or potential tragedy, to bring us back to a place of understanding, a place of, if you will, loving.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a Chronicles of Narnia type of tale filled with magic and allegory. It is a movie that touches all audiences, not just children, but the child buried in each person. It is those types of lessons where we can find joy and escape the doldrums that hold us down. Children still have the magic if we allow it to happen and don’t squelch it. The magic can be contagious if we as adults join in the fun, join in the journey with our children.

I loved the Velveteen Rabbit because it is a wonderful reminder of loving others and being a parent. My wife, a teacher of over 30 years now, and I both unexpectedly teared up while watching this film. I didn’t expect this movie to do that for me. It was more than joy though, it was a life lesson I wish I would have had some years ago to remind me of my own needs. I can’t help but think, Michael Landon Sr. is looking down from Heaven, realizing, and knowing that his son is carrying on his vision and dream. I expect he is smiling and for those who have longed for quality family entertainment, seeing this movie will have you smiling as well.

While not a perfect movie, The Velveteen Rabbit is an exceptional movie. On a scale of 1 – 10, for the 9 letters in the word Christmas, minus a little boy named Toby, I give a very deserving and enjoyable 8.

To visit the official website for The Velveteen Rabbit movie click here.

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