100-year-old Peter Rabbit hops into video age with new Family Channel series

April 04, 1993|By Anne Valdespino | Anne Valdespino,Orange County Register

Translated into 25 languages, reprinted more than 250 times, Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is read and reread wherever children snuggle up to parents for story time.

This year, as the mischievous bunny celebrates his 100th anniversary in print, he also leaps into the video age when the Family Channel presents the first installment of "The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends." It premiered Monday night and repeats at 6 p.m. today and 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. April 11.

Many storybooks such as "Charlotte's Web" and "Beauty and the Beast" have been adapted for the screen with phenomenal success. But the transition wasn't so simple for Peter Rabbit.

During Potter's lifetime several animators came to her seeking permission to use her stories. But each time she turned them down because she thought cartooning techniques couldn't faithfully reproduce her delicate, highly detailed watercolors of the quirky, perky characters she first drew as a girl growing up in Victorian England.

After Potter's death, publishers at Frederick Warne & Co. held to her artistic vision, also refusing to make a cartoon version of Peter Rabbit. They changed their minds when British producer John Coates came along with a new technique.

Best known for "The Snowman" and "The Yellow Submarine," Mr. Coates developed a method of animation known as rendering that ultimately was approved by Potter's publishers.

PTC "We were waiting for the right people, and that finally happened when John Coates made 'The Snowman,' " said Sally Floyer, publisher at Warne.

"What makes this technique unique is that we put an additional cel of wax crayon overlay of shadows and shapes on top of the original artwork," Mr. Coates said. "This, in essence, creates a new dimension and allows us to be true to the details of Potter's illustrations."

Hundreds of animators, tracers and artists were employed, and the work was divided among three studios: Television Cartoons Ltd. (Mr. Coates' company), Grand Slamm Partnership and Stuart Brooks Animation.

"The Tale of Samuel Whiskers" will air in summer. "The Tale of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck" is set for 1993. Then comes "The Tailor of Gloucester," holiday season 1993; "The Tale of Pigling Bland," 1994; and "The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Jeremy Fisher," 1994.

"Samuel Whiskers" and "Peter Rabbit" have been available on home video since March 15. A second set will be released in October.

At $11 million, it's the most expensive animation project ever produced in Britain. The videos will be marketed around the world.

Ms. Floyer is confident the high quality of the videos will bridge the culture gap around the world, even among American children accustomed to fast-action cartoons.

"It's gentle, but it's very rich visually to look at. I'm sure American children are no different from British, Australian or other children in the way they can engage with something if there's quite a lot of tension and excitement in the story."

To prepare the book for TV, writers converted some narration to dialogue. But they left the story intact.

L The forbidding character of Mr. McGregor was not toned down.

"It's not as scary as 'Terminator,' " Ms. Floyer said. "But Beatrix Potter's stories are quite tough. She wrote about nature, so she didn't pull any punches. Peter Rabbit knows jolly well it's dangerous to go into McGregor's garden. You know he's going to get into trouble, you know he's going to end up in tears, and although it's frightening, they [children] feel it's expected almost."

The sound spanking Peter and his playmate Benjamin receive from Mr. Bouncer is included in the video, although it's given off-screen.

"We did talk about it, and in the end we thought, 'Well, it's in the book, and there would be even more outrage if we changed what was in the book,' " Ms. Floyer said.

The video version also includes the blemishes in Potter's artwork. A farmer and naturalist who made detailed studies of plants and animals and kept rabbits in her nursery as a child, Potter was not adept at drawing humans.

"She had terrible trouble drawing people. She said she was bad at faces, and she wasn't satisfied with the picture of Mrs. McGregor; she thought it didn't work."

But while the people might look like cartoons, the animals are realistic.

"As soon as Peter takes his coat off he becomes a real animal," Ms. Floyer said.

The video project is part of a 15-month centennial celebration of Peter Rabbit's anniversary, the top-selling children's book of all time and the best-selling children's book in America, with more than 18 million copies sold. The celebration includes an exhibit of Potter's work at the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a ballet at London's Royal Opera House and other festivities in England, Scotland and America.

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