On the surface Watership Down seems to be a fairly innocent kids fantasy about rabbits trying to find a new home. However watching the film, it’s abundantly clear there are greater themes being related and a bitter realism to the world around the characters -one that’s quite different from the world they exist in.
Richard Adams’ rabbits have a rich mythology and religion, where essentially they were punished by the god Frith for the arrogance of their prince long ago by being given numerous predators. Their one advantage is their great speed gifted to them also by Frith, once an example had been made. The story concerns a small hutch in the English countryside who set out to find a new home when their warren is destroyed by humans. Along the way they face a number of threats, not only from predators, but their own kind.
I love the writing of this movie, a sure sign I hope for the writing of the book. The film incorporates unique rabbit terminology but it’s easy to catch on to. The dialogue is really strong and at times, particularly when evoking their religion, quite poetic and grand. Director Martin Rosen also wrote the screenplay and it’s quite impressive, elevating the simple story. There’s something I really like about this epic adventure taking place in the most banal of topographies. What keeps it interesting is the plight of the characters. Not that these characters are that particularly strong or developed, but their good nature contrasted against the threats to their survival endear them to you. The leader of the rabbits is Hazel voiced by the late great John Hurt and he shares the role of protagonist with his younger brother Fiver voiced by Richard Briers the anxious seer who foresaw the end of their warren. They’re good characters, but Fiver is the more interesting and relatable of the two, Hazel being mostly a generic brave leader with some great moments. Bigwig voiced by Michael Graham Cox in a performance that should garner him more attention, is also pretty interesting. He starts out as the abrasive muscle of the group but ends up proving his heroism in his own right. Harry Andrews is also pretty terrific as the frightening and ruthless antagonist Woundwort. The one character I wish had gotten more screen-time and personality, apart from the secondary players like Blackberry, Pipkin, Silver, and Clover (I like these names), is Cowslip voiced by Denholm Elliott from Indiana Jones, who has a very unusual relationship towards humans and keeps his hutch in a minefield of snares.
This possible betrayal of kin values isn’t where the movie’s most mature though; rather it’s in the ideas the movie poses. Watership Down’s most fascinating conceit is in that it asks how rabbits would view their world if they had compatible intelligence to humans. These are animals who live a relatively simple existence but have a lot of natural predators. How would they reconcile their place in the world? That’s where the religion aspect comes into play and makes Watership Down incredibly clever. Many of us have heard the words of Voltaire: “if there were no God it would be necessary to invent him”. This film ascribes to the idea that religion is created as a way to make sense of the world, to fashion answers to why things are the way they are. The rabbits don’t have a logical answer as to why so many animals want to kill or eat them, so the belief that they once did wrong by Frith and now pay that price makes sense for them. It’s like the Christian concept of original sin to explain why there’s pain and suffering in the world. Whether you believe this assertion or not, it’s clearly a statement about religion that Adams gives credibility to. And it’s used in a very smart way in this movie that while subtle, it challenges those who catch on to it to consider this viewpoint in application to humanity. The rabbits also grapple with mortality visualized literally through the Black Rabbit, an Omen of Death whom Fiver can see in visions. This figure and theme play a part late in the film that’s quite interesting and a tad bittersweet, but also seems to ask a question relating to the religious theme that’ll leave you pondering. The rabbits in this film have lived their lives constantly evading death. When one of their number dies not long into their quest you get a sense of sadness, but they move on rather quickly. It’s the cruel nature of the world for them that death often comes from unexplained places: vehicles for instance, which they know little more about than they do humans, and see them mainly as killing machines. This is a movie that also comments on survival, totalitarianism, and even class-consciousness, and all in a relatively human way. It’s not quite like Animal Farm where any one party is a clear allegory for a certain ideological tent-pole, but the evolution of these concepts in their society is believable, and they do work to ground the story and characters more in identifiable circumstances.
I’ve talked about how adult this movie is, but it was made to be and very much works as a film for children too. In many ways it’s like a Don Bluth movie -the animal heroes, the constant danger and often grim tone, Zero Mostel’s comic relief bird (his final film role in fact) who’s clearly a precursor to Jeremy from The Secret of NIMH -only Martin Rosen made it more violent. Indeed that’s the other area where this movie is quite adult: the gore. Outside of some animes specifically made for adults, this may be the most violent animated film I’ve seen. Rabbits are seen ripping at each others’ flesh, there’s a brutally real scene where one gets caught in a snare, and the claustrophobic imagery of Holly’s experience being buried alive, it’s quite explicit and even traumatizing. But the violence though gruesome for an otherwise family movie, is earned, and while certainly not appropriate for some childrens’ sensitivities, others will be able to endure it for the good pay-off. Even Disney movies have violence and death in them, they just don’t commit to realism enough to show blood. Watership Down does, and in so doing educates children on the harsh facets of life. When a lion like Mufasa is thrown from a cliff, he doesn’t land clean and still in the gorge -he’d be bruised, bloodied and barely recognizable. I don’t think all movies should take this approach, but I like that Rosen was brave enough to do so (and controversially market the movie as U-rated when it should be PG). Perhaps unintentionally, I even feel this movie acts as a deterrent to animal cruelty.
A good chunk of that comes from the fact the animals in this film are not anthropomorphized. They’re animated with superb attention to detail on how rabbits behave and interact. The way they fight is very genuine, the biting and clawing as you would see in nature. The art style is very much based in English painting, almost having a Beatrix Potter feel, which makes the violent moments stand out more. But the pastoral moments stand out as well. The opening sequence which details the rabbit mythos narrated terrifically by Michael Hordern, is stylized differently, animated by John Hubley of Mr. Magoo fame, who was originally supposed to direct the feature before he passed away. It’s more cartoonish and wouldn’t have suited the whole movie, but is a good way of distinguishing this legend from the principal plot while still maintaining its influence over that plot. There’s also a beautiful sequence that takes on a marginally different animation style and features the Black Rabbit and Fiver as “Bright Eyes”, a lovely piece sung by Art Garfunkel, plays over it. The sudden presence of a song is a slight disconnect, but the scene organically fits with the mood of the moment.
Watership Down is just shy of being one of the greats of animation. It’s much deeper than it seems on first glance and is enjoyably performed, animated, and written. It’s willing to be intense and violent where it needs to be and treats its audience with respect. Perhaps best of all, it’s provocative, leaving you different than when it started, and is engaging enough in its world and even mythology, that you want more. It’s not one of the very best, but in the medium of animation I don’t believe any other film attains that same special place as Watership Down.