BBC Video has gathered together the previously released DVDs of The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, the 1992 BBC animated series featuring the beloved characters from author, illustrator and conservationist Beatrix Potter, and titled them The Beatrix Potter Collection. Nine of Potter's stories are animated here, spread out generously over three discs, and in a word, they're enchanting.
While I would imagine Winnie the Pooh (thanks to his later connection with Disney) is more popular here in the States than Potter's Peter Rabbit, Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Mr. McGregor are still quite familiar names to young and old here, and these delightful animated adaptations are simply the best representations of Potter's work that I've ever seen - short of reading her books, of course. Great care was taken by the BBC to faithfully recreate the look of Potter's illustrations, while admirably, there was no attempt to soften or ameliorate the stronger, more violent aspects of her stories, just to make them more "accessible" to young audiences and their "P.C" parents.
Each animated episode opens with a live-action prelude featuring Niamh Cusack (of the honored Irish Cusack acting family) as a young Beatrix Potter. Filmed on location at Potter's lovely Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey, Cumbria, in the celebrated Lake District, this opening sequence (directed by Dennis Abey) shows Potter painting a watercolor landscape, only to dash home when a summer shower comes. Sitting by a warm fire in her comfortable home (I can only assume this was also filmed in Potter's real home?), she starts to write a letter to a friend or a sick child (it varies from episode to episode), which serves as a framing devious for the introduction of the new animated story. This opening is used for each story, and obviously reworked in the final sequence to accommodate the various episodes' different expositions. A couple of episodes do utilize a different opening live-action montage, again featuring Cusack as Potter, which shows her traveling through a small village by carriage, to her farm (the final episode, the Christmas-themed The Tailor of Gloucester, has an entirely new live-action framing device, showing Potter at a different, more elaborate town house, decked out for Christmas). Not having seen the original broadcast of this BBC series, I can't say if these were the only two openings utilized or if further ones were shot and aired, but they do serve to give the subsequent animated segments a "storytime" feel, as we settle down with Ms. Potter for one of her charming stories.
The animated sequences are beautifully realized here, and that's not surprising when you see the level of talent that was assembled by the BBC for this series; Potter's books are almost sacred texts in the British popular culture, and the BBC was quite careful to render these animated tales in as respectful - and vibrant - a fashion as possible. The overall series was directed by Dianne Jackson, who directed 1982's beautifully sad The Snowman. Individual episodes are directed by Dave Unwin (1995's terrific The Wind in the Willows), Geoff Dunbar (1985's Rupert and the Frog Song), Jack Stokes (1965's animated series, The Beatles, as well as animation director for Yellow Submarine), Roger Mainwood (key animator on the wonderful 1991 Father Christmas, as well as 1981's influential Heavy Metal), and Mike Stuart (another key animator on Father Christmas, 1982's Pink Floyd The Wall, as well as directing the delightful children's animated series, Kipper).
Anyone familiar with Potter's books will see the care and attention to detail that's been attentively applied here. The ink and pen and watercolor backgrounds are gorgeously evocative of Potter's plates, while the character animation reaches an admirable compromise between anthropomorphizing Peter and Johnny Town-Mouse and Tom Kitten, and keeping their actions and movements firmly grounded in realistic animal physics. Colors are delicate and subtly wrought, while the soundtracks feature lovely, appropriate music by prolific composer Colin Towns, along with evocative background noises such as birds twittering and leaves rustling (which move around nicely within the 2.0 stereo mix). The makers of The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends did a remarkable job of staying very close to the aesthetic experience of reading a Potter book.
Perhaps just as importantly, the filmmakers haven't bowdlerized the content and spirit of Potter's animal world here, either. Viewers who hear the name "Peter Rabbit" may think of the story in terms of a "Golden Book" simplicity, where cute little bunnies gambol across fields and laugh over tea parties, but the filmmakers have been conscientious to Potter's original vision of nature, which is much more moralistic - as well as potentially "cruel" and impassive - than those viewers might think who only know Peter Rabbit's world from expurgated and homogenized versions. Underlying the charming world where rabbits wear coats and smoke pipes, and frogs enjoy a warm fire after fishing for minnows (with pole and tackle and boots), is a constant acknowledgment that the order of nature is essentially a cruel one. Everyone is looking to potentially eat someone else. Survival is key, and the weak (usually small baby bunnies in these stories) are constantly preyed upon by the craven, sly predators like the fox and the badger. Even the heroic (the dogs who help save Jemima Puddle-Duck's eggs from the wily fox) can not escape their own powerful, natural urges (after running off the fox, the dogs unthinkingly eat the eggs, while the lead dog sagely tells Jemima, "It's just in the nature of things."). Nature in Potter's world is a potentially dangerous, deadly, but implacable and impassive place, and lessons can be learned from its stories (the voice-over narration of the author Potter doesn't let Jemima off the hook, saying resignedly that Jemima "always was a bad sitter."). That's what makes Potter's books so valuable as true children's parables; how can a child be reassured and made to feel safe by a parent (while learning a lesson in the bargain), unless there's something "frightening" (i.e.: realistic) in a fairy tale? Luckily, the makers of The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends didn't forget this, and kept Potter's essential truths intact for these marvelous animations.
Here are the nine episodes of 1992's The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, as collected on three discs for The Beatrix Potter Collection:
The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny
The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and Mrs. Tittlemouse
The Tale of Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck
The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and Mr. Jeremy Fisher
The Tale of Mr. Tod: The Further Adventures of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny
The Tale of Two Bad Mice and Johnny Town-Mouse
The Tale of Pigling Bland
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding
The Tailor of Gloucester
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.