Just in time for spring, as real-life rabbits reappear in many a neighborhood, Margaret Wise Brown’s classic picture book The Runaway Bunny (Harper, 1942), illustrated by Clement Hurd, makes its debut as a half-hour animated musical film on HBO Max, premiering March 25. The tale of a young bunny who imagines the various ways he might run and hide from his ever-reassuring mother is narrated by Tracee Ellis Ross, and features songs performed by such recording artists as Mariah Carey, Rosanne Cash, Ziggy Marley, and Rufus Wainwright woven into the narrative.

The project marks a return to Brown’s work for producer and director Amy Schatz, whose Goodnight Moon & Other Sleepytime Tales showcased the author’s Goodnight Moon and aired on HBO in 1999. That film won a Peabody and an Emmy Award among other accolades. Ever since, Schatz said, “It’s been a dream to follow up with The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown’s other collaboration with Clement Hurd. The estates [of Brown and Hurd] and I kept returning to the idea every year and talking about what it might be. If you’re lucky to have the chance to work with a book so beloved and classic, you have to make sure to get it right.” The Runaway Bunny has never gone out of print and has sold more than 12 million copies to date.

“We wanted to bring Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry to life and to capture the magic of Clement Hurd’s bunny world,” Schatz said of her approach to the project. “Our challenge was how to open it up and still keep it true to the feeling and tone of the book.” She noted that bringing on board “brilliant” animator Maciek Albrecht, who also worked on Goodnight Moon, “was key.”

Schatz connected with the material on a personal level because of what she believes are the book’s multiple threads of appeal. “I like making films for kids that are both playful and deep, that resonate with life’s big subjects,” she said. “The Runaway Bunny is a meditation on love and childhood. The story is just a quiet little moment in time—an interaction between a mother bunny and her baby bunny playing in a field of grass. But it’s more than that. At its heart is a profound story about growing up—about a child testing his independence and a parent saying, ‘I will always be there, no matter where you go.’ It’s also a story about parenting—about how to let our children go into the world while reassuring them they’re not alone.”

And in this era of the Covid-19 crisis, Schatz noted, “During this year it felt particularly meaningful to have something beautiful and soothing out there for kids and families. Margaret Wise Brown wrote this comforting book while the Second World War was raging in Europe. It felt that way for us as well. I really wanted to put something into the world that would be as quiet and full of heart as a lullaby.”

A 'Magic Password'

Schatz’s casting of the film’s musical talent was designed to “take young viewers on a journey the way Clement Hurd’s color pages do,” she said. “In the book the text appears on the black and white pages and then you turn the page and you get lost in Clement Hurd’s beautiful color illustrations. Our song sections were meant to be magical daydreams, a kind of animated equivalent to the full-color spreads.” It turns out that the project was an easy sell. Schatz recalled, “When I reached out to the artists to sing for us, over and over again I was told, ‘I love that book, yes!’ Runaway Bunny was a magic password.”

Musical highlights in the film include Mariah Carey singing a new reinterpretation of her hit song “Always Be My Baby” and Tracee Ellis Ross performing “Song of the Runaway Bunny,” a never-before-released composition by Brown based on a Provençal love ballad which inspired her to write the book.

Nancy Inteli, v-p and publishing director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, shared her take on the film. “Amy Schatz and the production team worked closely with Thacher Hurd, Clement Hurd’s son, and Ellen Geiger, longtime agent representing the author’s side, and truly created a work of art that’s as soothing and intimate as reading the book on the lap of a loved one,” she said.