Rankin/Bass Retrospective: 'Here Comes Peter Cottontail'
From the very beginning, Christmas specials were the bread and butter of Rankin/Bass’s output. It’s what worked, what gained them public recognition and critical acclaim. But there were a few times when they ventured outside of their comfort zone and attempted to give the same focus on other holidays. Early on they had produced a Thanksgiving special, 1968’s “Mouse on the Mayflower”, and while not exactly Halloween (or even released remotely close to October), 1967’s “Mad Monster Party?” was a humorous love letter to the horror icons synonymous with the holiday.
But it was Rankin/Bass’s first Easter special which shone a spotlight on not just its own holiday, but all the other holidays which may not have been able to get their own specials.
Here Comes Peter Cottontail
April 4, 1971
“Here Comes Peter Cottontail” aired on ABC on April 4, 1971, during a time in which the studio was arguably at its height. The title follows in the footsteps of many other Rankin/Bass holiday specials, taking its name from a pre-existing song (which also plays during the special), in this case the 1950 song “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” by Gene Autry; The name “Peter Cottontail” originated from the works of Thornton Burgess, who had a character named Peter Rabbit (directly named after the Beatrix Potter character by suggestion of his son) that briefly took on the name of “Peter Cottontail” during one of the stories.
The actual plot of the special,on the other hand, took direct inspiration from a children’s book published in 1957, “The Easter Bunny That Overslept” (written by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich), about the Easter Bunny sleeping through Easter and attempting to distribute his eggs during the other holidays.
For those familiar with Rankin/Bass’s other specials, the formula for how this special is told should be immediately apparent. The special is introduced by a peddler and inventor named Seymour S. Sassafras, voiced by Danny Kaye (and, like many Rankin/Bass narrators, is portrayed by a caricature of himself). Sassafras, shocked that the viewer hasn’t heard of Peter Cottontail, uses a magic Easter egg to show the Easter Bunny’s origin story.
The Easter Bunny Contest Begins
The story opens in April Valley with the previous Chief Easter Bunny, Colonel Wellington B. Bunny (also voiced by Danny Kaye), deciding who to appoint as his successor upon his upcoming retirement. He decides upon Peter Cottontail (voiced by Casey Kasem), a young bunny with a habit of lying and boasting. This news upsets a mean-spirited bunny with a iron prosthetic tail named January Q. Irontail (voiced by Vincent Price), who proposes, per the rules of April Valley’s constitution, that the mantle of Chief Easter Bunny be given to whatever bunny can deliver the most eggs.
However, due to a combination of his own arrogance in throwing a late night victory party before the contest even started and Irontail sabotaging his alarm clock, Peter slept right through Easter and didn’t deliver a single egg. While Irontail only managed to deliver a single egg, by default he still won the contest and became the new ruler of April Valley. Under his rule, the lives of the bunnies in the valley became miserable and Peter sent himself into exile.
Soon after, Peter meets Sassafras, the man who supplies April Valley with the colors and dyes they use from his garden, the Garden of Surprises. Sassafras offers to help Peter by letting him use his Yestermorrowbile, a car with a hot air balloon which can travel to any holiday in the past or the future, to go back and deliver the eggs.
While Peter and the machine’s pilot, a caterpillar named Antoine, initially plot a course for Easter, Irontail sends a tarantula after them to sabotage the machine, forcing them instead into the future.
The Journey Through the Holidays
They travel one month forward arriving on Mother’s Day. But, Peter is unable to give his eggs to everyone, as everyone he visits is unhappy that he didn’t visit them on Easter.
Antoine fixes the machine and they go further in the future to the Fourth of July, where they’re brought down by a firework. Antoine suggests Peter start delivering eggs, as the April Valley constitution doesn’t specify when the eggs should be delivered, but Peter resorts to lying to some kids by claiming they’re firecrackers, which only angers the kids who give them back.
They next land on Halloween for repairs, when Irontail spots them and sends his ally, the witch Madame Esmerelda (voiced by Joan Gardner), to deal with him. Peter is completely unphased by her attempts to scare him, and he offers her a “Halloween” egg; She gladly accepts and calls up her other supernatural friends to enjoy the eggs as well.
However, fearing this’ll give Peter the win he needs, Irontail then sends a bat to steal the eggs and destroy them. Peter and Antoine are able to chase after the bat and get the eggs back, but the machine is unable to turn back and heads further into the future to Thanksgiving. There, he’s still unable to give away the eggs because everyone is too full from their Thanksgiving dinners.
Moving forward to Christmas, Peter attempts to give the eggs away on a street corner while dressed as Santa, but arrives too late again. He then spots an unsold Easter bonnet he recognizes in a shop window and attempts to get the bonnet from the shop owner in exchange for the eggs. But before he can seal the deal, Irontail personally arrives to steal the basket and take off into the night.
Peter gets in the Yestermorrowbile, forgetting Antoine in the process, and chases after Irontail. With the help of Santa Claus, he’s able to get the basket back, but can’t figure out how to stop the machine. Peter continues onward, flying past New Years, and finally finds the “stop” button in time for Valentine’s Day. There at a party, he meets another bunny named Donna, and the two fall in love.
While Peter ice-skates with her, leaving the basket unattended, Irontail shows up and uses a magic spell to turn all the eggs green inside and out. No one at the Valentines party wants the green eggs and Donna’s heart is broken, which forces Peter to continue on.
The Contest Concludes
After failing on Washington’s Birthday to give away the green eggs, Peter is ready to give up. Desperate, he vows that he’ll never tell another fib and always attend to duty before amusement if he can find a way to give away the eggs. It’s then that he realizes the time machine is about to arrive as St. Patrick’s Day, and upon landing near a St. Patrick’s Day parade, he finds dozens of people who want to have his “shamrock” eggs.
Upon arriving back in April Valley, having at last won the contest, Peter is officially named as the new Chief Easter Bunny. On Easter day, Peter sets out again, delivering the eggs to everyone he met along his journey. He reconnects with Donna, finds out Antoine has become a butterfly, and passes by April Valley’s newest sanitation worker, Irontail.
“Here Comes Peter Cottontail”, as Rankin/Bass’s first Easter special, ironically becomes just as much a celebration of all the holidays as it does Easter. Having been made when the studio was at its height during the early 70’s, the special is just as much a classic as the contemporaries it shared airtime with. Between its all-star cast, script written by Romeo Muller, music by Maury Laws and Jules Bass, and Animagic animation supervised by Kizo Nagashima (who also worked on Rudolph), it’s certainly worthy of its place in the Rankin/Bass pantheon.
Beyond its initial ABC airing, the special would get a lengthy life in repeats on channels such as CBS and Cartoon Network. In 2005, it would even be one of the few Rankin/Bass specials to receive an official sequel after the studio closed its doors, in the form of a CGI direct-to-video film called “Here Comes Peter Cottontail: The Movie”, centered around Peter's son.
And although it would be a few years, this wouldn’t be the last time the Easter holiday was given the Rankin/Bass treatment, nor the would it be last covering the Easter Bunny’s origin story, as it would return in a pair of specials during 1976 and 1977.