Appreciably more subdued than most other recent kidpics of its kind, “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a loose adaptation of the classic children’s story by Margery Williams, is a low-key charmer that’s bound to enchant small children and amuse their parents during many hours of repeat viewings. Slated for a March 17 homevid release after limited theatrical exposure starting Feb. 27, this well-crafted combo of live-action drama and old-fashioned animation is particularly well suited for small fry not yet ready for the rude shocks of rowdier toons.
The scenario is set in a postcard-pretty America of the early 1900s, allowing production designer Jean-Baptiste Tard and costume designer Mario Davignon to provide as much period flavor as their indie-scaled budget can allow.
Toby (Matthew Harbour), a sad lad who has recently lost his mother, yearns for affectionate reassurance from his emotionally distant father (Kevin Jubinville). But Dad — who apparently sees workaholism as a sure cure for his own grief — is too busy to deal with his lonely child. Instead, he drops the boy off at the rural estate of his ever-so-proper grandmother (Una Kay), an imperious matron who extends a chilly welcome.
Fortuitously, Toby discovers in his grandmother’s dusty attic three antique toys: a rocking horse (voiced by Tom Skerritt), a wooden goose (Ellen Burstyn) and, of course, a plush bunny rabbit (Chandler Wakefield). Whenever the toys spring to life during one of the pic’s many animated sequences, Toby (who becomes a cartoon character himself to join his new playmates) enjoys fun and games while learning life lessons. (“Everything that’s real,” the rabbit notes, “was imagined first.”)
But when Toby contracts scarlet fever, playtime ends and the pic turns, if not quite deadly serious, then just intense enough to engage small viewers without unduly upsetting them.
Capably directed by Michael Landon Jr. (“The Last Sin Eater”), a helmer not always known for lightness of touch, “Rabbit” is gently effective as a fable about the transformational power of love. Older auds may feel like kids again while viewing the toon sequences, which employ an unabashedly retro style of 2-D animation not unlike that of a mid-’70s network TV special. Very much like the human stars, however, the cartoon characters are compelling without too much tugging of heartstrings.