For those still binging on leftover or discounted bunny- or egg-shaped candy, Easter is not quite over! Let’s hop into our DeLoreans and punch in 1986. The Muppets are still going strong, consistently delivering in terms of film, television projects, and merchandising. Henson is able to professionally shift gears to more fantasy projects while still being successful with the growing and established Muppets. Labyrinth premieres in 1986 and becomes a cult classic. This same year, Jim Henson goes “back to basics” with the refreshingly simple hand-puppet style HBO special The Tale of the Bunny Picnic.
For those Henson historians out there, the story goes something like this. The Henson staff would often have picnics near the London Creature Shop. At dusk, warrens of rabbits would emerge. In an introduction to The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, Henson explained that he and his daughter, Cheryl, noticed that the rabbits looked like they were getting ready for a meeting when a dog emerged and started barking at the rabbits. The colony ran away and Henson and his daughter turned that brief incident into a colorful treasure.
As a kid, I loved the Muppets and I especially loved when Jim Henson made an appearance as himself. I loved when he explained how the Muppets worked or when he even just appeared for a few minutes on-screen. This special starts out with a brief introduction by Henson. He walks through a forest and explains the origin of the story. His voice is a very soft version of Kermit’s. He speaks to the camera, but often shyly looks away as if he is not sure how to be just himself without playing straight man to Kermit or Rowlf. It is a tender moment that sets the pace for a special centered on family.
The Muppets overall are a collection of characters from different movies and specials. Countless puppets and characters have been developed, but, sometimes, a character is carried over from one show and becomes a central character in another. This marks the first appearance by Steve Whitmire’s Bean Bunny. He would become a key character in the television show The Jim Henson Hour, specifically in the MuppeTelevision segments and the Disney ride Muppet*Vision 3D. His role in the Muppet family dwindled, however, when Whitmire took over as Kermit. He had a noticeable supporting role in Muppet Christmas Carol, but nowadays can only be found as a background character. He was ultimately added to the main Muppet cast as a sickeningly cute character.
But this special is full of bunnies! Cute, adorable bunnies playing, singing, and hopping. It is probably the cutest and most saccharinely sweet Muppet special of all! Bean Bunny is stuck at that age where everyone sees him as a child and he is tired of being little. The bunnies are preparing for the Bunny Picnic which heralds the start of spring. The bunnies enjoy free reign until the farmer (who is allergic to bunnies) gets a dog to catch the bunnies for his stew.
Apparently, the only bunny the hateful farmer is not allergic to is a bunny in his stew.
Of course, none of the bunnies believe Bean until they come face to face with the dog. The dog is mistreated by the farmer and in an ironic twist saved from his abusive owner by the very bunnies he tried to catch, who then welcome him to their fold.
This special is told in “story book” format. Henson’s introduction ends with the words, “Once upon a time…” and the show leads in with a storybook being opened while the gravelly voice of an unseen narrator can be heard. This title would be a great addition to the Tales from Muppetland series. All of these stories have a literary feel to them. In most cases, the specials are fairy tales that are being presented. The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, although not a traditional folk tale, could easily be considered a modern fairy tale.
It also matches with a sort of recipe of the other Tales from Muppetland specials, although Kermit the Frog is nowhere to be found neither as a bit player nor as the narrator. Once again, the antagonist is a humanoid puppet/costume combination. He is much less scary than the other humans in these types of specials thus far. His face is mostly obscured and seen in shadows while his body and ever present handkerchief are easily seen. The dog is performed as a combination of a hand puppet and marionette. Henson performs his voice and it comes out as a combination of Rowlf and Dr. Teeth. A great running gag with the dog is that the farmer has not even bothered giving him a name. The dog constantly says “…or my name ain’t…well…uhhh…” and trails off. He is not terribly bright, either. He knows all of the names of body parts, just not which parts they correspond with.
The Tale of the Bunny Picnic is actually a lot like another Muppet series from the 1980s: Fraggle Rock. First off, Bean Bunny is a lot like Wembley Fraggle. Both are voiced by Whitmire and are very nervous and easily frightened. They are also easily dismissed by the worldlier, braver friends and family members who reassure them only to realize the worry warts were right all along! The communities are also similar. The Fraggles are a group that constantly sings, plays, and have celebrations; the bunnies are exactly the same. The highlight of the bunny picnic is the annual visit by the Storyteller Bunny. In Fraggle Rock, Storyteller Fraggle often visits and acts as a philosopher and moral guide.
Of course, it would not be a Muppet piece without some sort of lesson. The main lesson in Storyteller Bunny’s story that he shares and performs with his own hand puppets is, “Those who hurt others, hurt themselves.” The bunnies disguise themselves as a giant bunny and attempt to teach the dog this same lesson. Another main theme of this show is that everyone is important to their family or community, even the smallest among us. Henson and the Muppets have always been known for placing emphasis on the importance of world community and this special succeeds nicely in reinforcing that point.
Sadly, this special has had just a few limited releases on VHS which edited out the Jim Henson introduction. It is one of the many Henson titles that were purchased by Disney and have not been released on DVD. I barely remember watching this as a young child, so I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting it as an adult and almost-first time viewer.
The Tale of the Bunny Picnic earns a very solid 4 out of 5 rubber chickens! It succeeds visually, musically, in story, and in pacing.