It’s an odd corollary of giant rabbit movies that everyone involved seems preoccupied with the size of their bunny. Generally, they’re about the same height: 'Six-feet high. Or is it six-feet three-and-half?' queries Veta Louise of her brother Elwood P Dowd’s constant companion, Harvey. 'Six feet,' comes the answer from Donnie Darko (2001).
You’ll have to judge for yourself the size of the creature that looms large in the nightmares of Gal (Ray Winstone) in brill Brit gangster flick Sexy Beast (2000). But then, this is one mean hombre of a rabbit, who rides into Gal’s desert dreams on the back of a donkey, and then opens fire with a machine-gun. (He is again armed when we get a very brief glimpse of him as Winstone waits for a showdown with menacing Ian McShane.)
The obvious conflict here is with our preconception of rabbits as frolicking, floppy-eared furballs generally preoccupied with procreation – fecund symbols of springtime and abundance. 'I like rabbits an’ all,' says Donald 'Donnie' Darko in the language symptomatic of US teens ever since The Catcher in the Rye, 'they’re cute and they’re horny.'
Not so Donnie’s new imaginary friend Frank, who’s a sort of Terminator-bunny, albeit one that saves Donnie’s life. Frank persuades Donnie to leave home moments before an errant jet engine obliterates Donnie’s bedroom. It is 2 October 1988, 28 days before the end of the world, according to Frank. (Donnie Darko, 2001, shares with that greatest of films of US childhood, E.T., a climax played out to that backdrop of all-American festivity, Halloween.) Frank then launches Donnie into a series of suitably apocalyptic acts, including fire (at the home of a paedo life coach played by Patrick Swayze) and flooding (at Donnie’s school).
And then there are the rabbit references: Echo and the Bunnymen on the soundtrack – this is the 1980s after all – and Watership Down on video in English class. 'Maybe you and Frank can read this one together,' teacher Drew Barrymore suggests to Donnie of Richard Adams’ book. In the clip we see, Fiver predicts a bloody future for furry kind at the paws of General Woundwort – certainly the nastiest 2D rabbit around. But the animated field is dominated by wily Bugs and pratfalling Roger.
Separated by nearly 40 years, Bob Hoskins’ experience of acting opposite thin air for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? must have mirrored that of James Stewart in Harvey (1950), although in the latter case the only visual hint the audience gets of Stewart’s long-eared sidekick’s existence is a hat with two holes in its top, a gag that was probably too hard to give up for the film’s makers. They should have resisted temptation; after all, Harvey doesn’t exist, does he?
We’re told that Harvey is a Pooka who, rather like Donnie’s Frank, 'protects him' and we’re led to understand that he represents loveable drunk Elwood’s alcoholism (the duo hang out at Charlie’s bar with all the other alkies). But could Harvey instead be a signifier of Elwood’s homosexuality, the fluffy-tailed equivalent of Paul Newman’s plaster-cast leg in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
A sweeter-natured drunk you never will see. We’re told 'he was a great home boy', a man who became 'the biggest screwball in town' after his mother’s death. Briefly, Harvey leaves Elwood for another man, but the philandering bunny almost immediately returns to his old chum. 'I prefer you too,' Elwood replies to Harvey’s unheard statement. And all the time poor Veta Louise is trying to marry off her own daughter. Clearly, you're nobody until some bunny loves you.
Rabbit rabbit rabbit: five more giant bunny films
We’ll probably never really know what Rob Reiner meant by putting Bruce Willis in a giant pink bunny suit in unexpected 1994 mishit North, where Willis plays Elijah Wood’s conscience. Willis appears at other moments as a delivery driver and a cowboy – maybe he just likes the outfits.
As 'costume designer' on Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997), Chloë Sevigny dressed youngster Jacob Sewell in pink, felt bunny ears for his role in the cat-baiting Midwestern freakfest. His appearance is as confusing as Willis’s in North - Sewell by turns hangs out, skateboards, plays the accordion or serves as target for two kids who play like homophobic Elmer Fudds: 'Kill the queer wabbit!' (Sevigny, of course, went on to do the honours in Vincent Gallo’s awful blowjob fest, The Brown Bunny.)
Who else but David Lynch would take the theme and hop away with it - from his hare-brained web short Rabbits to psyche-delving Inland Empire (2006). There may be bats in his belfry, there are certainly giant bunnies in the living room.
Ginormous mutant killer rabbits terrorise the American south-west in Night of the Lepus (1972), starring Janet Leigh… while demon bunnies rise again in Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit (2005), one of Aardman’s final forays into Hollywood with Steven Spielberg’s giant Dreamworks corporation. Funny, as in bunny ha-ha.
A longer version of this article appeared in Little White Lies magazine some time back. The picture, top, may mark the start of my interest in giant bunnies. I'm sure there's a Korean movie I'm missing, if not many more...