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April 12, 2009

Death, love gently explored

By Sister Helena Burns, FSP


Looking for films that entertain and inspire little ones? A new rendition of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” directed by Michael Landon Jr., and voiced by Jane Seymour, Tom Skerritt, Ellen Burstyn and others, is now available on DVD.

The new “Velveteen Rabbit” is a delightful mix of live action set in Victorian times and animation. Because it’s based upon the classic children’s book by Margery Williams in 1922, the movie, has substance, adventure, loads of imagination and rich truths beneath its surface.

In the story, a lonely little boy named Toby, whose mother is dead and whose father is cold and distant, is sent to live with his equally cold grandmother. His only friend is a stuffed bunny named Rabbit that he finds in the “magic” attic.

Whenever he wants, Toby can disappear into a wonderful world (animation) of his own making where Rabbit (and Swan and Horse) come to life. There, Toby finds warmth, play and friendship. Only it isn’t real. Rabbit longs to join Toby forever in the real world but doesn’t know how.

When Toby contracts scarlet fever, Rabbit learns that death is real, and he has to make a choice whether to let his human friend die or give his own life for him. Of all the lessons to be learned from this story, “Love makes us real,” is the brightest nugget.

The sad scenes in “The Velveteen Rabbit” are age appropriate (ages 3 to 8). They may shed a tear or two, but they won’t be crying at the end. The story gently introduces children to death (both Toby’s mother’s and his own near-death experience).

The pacing is slow and even, as one idea, one plot point at a time is presented, making it easy for little ones to follow, contemplate and retell.

This film is an excellent vehicle to talk to children about imagination and the nature of all virtual reality (all media-created reality) compared to reality. Like a Charles Dickens’ story, there’s a Christian logic at work here. Love is what it means to be human, and humans can change, no matter how fixed, crusty and stony their hearts may seem.

It is said that our worldview is formed very early from the books we read as children. And re-read and reread. As we grow up, maybe it’s better not to leave our magic attics too far behind.

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-1, general patronage.

Burns, a Daughter of St. Paul, ministers in Chicago and studied screenwriting at the University of California.