In 1902, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit sold out before hitting London bookstores, instantly becoming a cultural touchstone and setting off the humble bunny’s unprecedented 116-year run as the go-to species for children’s entertainment. Following in Peter’s paw prints? Lewis Carrol’s White Rabbit, Disney’s Oswald, Looney Tune’s Bugs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh’s neurotic buddy, Bambi’s Thumper, Hugh Hefner’s Bunnies (childlike figures in a more fraught way), and, more recently, Zootopia‘s Judy Hopps. Now, things are coming full circle as Peter Rabbit hops onto screens with the voice of James Corden in a frenetic and eponymous film. Will this latest venture bookend over a century of carrot-chomping dominance? Likely not and for some very unexpected reasons.
Dog and cats are worth mentioning at the top. Though dogs and cats are common in kid’s entertainment, they are not as ubiquitous as rabbits nor as common in the upper echelons of cartoon fame. This is odd given that they are both — along with slightly less charismatic and distinctly less mammalian fish — far more popular as pets. This is perhaps the most obvious indication that there is, as scholars have come to recognize, something very specific about the bodies and habits of rabbits that makes them singularly easy to root for and to anthropomorphize.
Creating characters is a hard job, especially when those characters have to seem like human-animal chimeras without being viscerally off-putting or werewolf-y. The job is made significantly easier if the animal in question has not only broad appeal, but a well-defined metaphorical quality. Put differently, it helps a lot if the audience knows implicitly what traits they are supposed to attribute to that animal.
“Rabbits are used because of their specific attributes and nuances,” said voice-actor Scott Reyns. “Say ‘bunny’ and it automatically references softness, innocence, and cuteness.”
But that, according to Reyns, who has been featured in Sim City and Tekken 4, is not the sole appeal of the bunny. Reyns explains that rabbits are unique from other popular animals because they are both domestic animals and wild animals. They can be impossible to catch and destructive to gardens, but they can also be pet-able friendly. This creates a duality. Rabbits can be mischievous or adorable or both.
“From a hunting perspective they’re not easy catches, so we associate them with speed, cleverness and being elusive,” Reyns says. “Bugs Bunny is the classic example.”
Film critic Leon Vogel agrees with Reyns’ assessment, adding that rabbit are incredibly fast and elusive. They tend to let their predators see them and inspire frustration when they get away by being quick or wary. Anyone who has ever had a dog and a bunny living in their yard will be familiar with this dynamic.
But there are also practical reasons rabbits are so attractive to filmmakers and illustrators. William Gadea, the founder and creative director of IdeaRocket Animation, an award-winning animation studio that has collaborated with network TV shows and professional sports teams, says that ultimately the popularity of bunny characters may come down to their most obvious trait: large ears.
“The ears can be so expressive,” Gadea explains. “They are a gift to animators.”
Unlike other animals, bunnies have a distinct physical feature that can serve as additional indicators of a character’s general mood. This allows any situation to be automatically heightened, as the ears subtly work to reinforce whatever emotion the rabbit is feeling at that moment.
“If the character is running, they trail in the wind like a scarf,” Says Gadea. “If the character is sad, they slump like shoulders would. If the character comes upon some cartoonish mishap, the ears bend at angles like they were broken. If the character sees a shocking sight, they straighten out like exclamation marks.”
The final, and perhaps the most significant, reason for the popularity of rabbits is that the entertainment industry tends to play the hits. Rabbits have worked in the past, therefore there will be more rabbits. Rabbits breed like rabbits. After all, the wacky, slightly wreckless Roger Rabbit wasn’t just randomly assigned an animal, he was a rabbit as a tribute to the legendary Bugs Bunny, albeit with his own look and quirks. And bugs is not dissimilar to Oswald, who begat Mickey Mouse who — if you really dwell on it — is just a tug on the ears away from rabbithood.
So, as Peter Rabbit makes the jump from the page to the big screen more than a century after debut, don’t be surprised if your kid asks for a bunny. Bunnies have felt like the natural allies of children since Peter first invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden. And unless bunnies suddenly go on a real-life, Holy Grail-style killing spree, it’s probably safe to say that they will remain the undisputed kings of animation for the next hundred years.