Watership Down (1978)
Directed by: Martin Rosen.
Written by: Martin Rosen based on the novel by Richard Adams.
Starring: John Hurt (Hazel), Richard Briers (Fiver), Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig), John Bennett (Capt. Holly), Ralph Richardson (Chief Rabbit), Simon Cadell (Blackberry), Terence Rigby (Silver), Roy Kinnear (Pipkin), Richard O'Callaghan (Dandelion), Denholm Elliott (Cowslip), Lynn Farleigh (Cat), Mary Maddox (Clover), Zero Mostel (Kehaar), Harry Andrews (Gen. Woundwort), Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Capt. Campion), Clifton Jones (Blackavar), Derek Griffiths (Vervain), Michael Hordern (Frith), Joss Ackland (Black Rabbit), Michelle Price (Lucy).
The film version of Watership Down has scarred and haunted a few generations of children now – children whose parents who showed them the movie not knowing what it was really about, and thinking that it would be a cute movie about animated, talking rabbits. Those parents (some of whom, apparently, still complain to the British Ratings Board – which did, ridiculously, grant the film a U Rating – for Universal) are idiots, as Richard Adams book has been a well-known standard for decades, and while the film certainly excises, or reduces, some parts it remains a suitably dark adaptation. Yet, for all the talk of traumatized children that comes up when Watership Down is brought up, it must be said – that while this movie is for everyone – that does, in fact, include children. No, I’m not going to show this to more my four year old – but when she’s 10 or 11, I certainly will. Watership Down is about, among other things, death and its inevitability – the rabbits go from one place to the next, and most of them remain one step ahead of death (some are taken, in some shockingly sudden ways), but eventually they will not. They encounter a world that lacks empathy, and doesn’t much care what happens to them – the humans in the movie are not really cruel – they, like most of us, just don’t spend much time thinking about the rabbits at all. As parents, we naturally want to protect our children, and preserve their childhood innocence – but we cannot do it forever. Yes, Watership Down will likely sear itself into your children’s memory – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The film version trims a lot of Adams’ musings on the type of God that rabbits would create for themselves – basically keeping it to a memorable beginning, done in a different animation style than the rest of the film – more basic, more primal – not unlike cave paintings, as it tells the story of how God is punishing the rabbits by making them prey to all sorts of other animals – but also blessed them with speed and smarts, to be able to hide from them. From there, we go to the main story involving a group of rabbits led by Hazel (voiced, very well, by John Hurt). The scared, shaky Fiver (Richard Briers) has had a terrifying vision of the future – of fire and blood, but many in their group will not listen to him. Hazel and others do, and end up fleeing their warren in search of something safer – before Fiver’s vision comes to pass (to the surprise of no one, that vision is man – expanding their own habitat at the expense of the rabbits).
From there, the rabbits move from one place to the next, always attempting to find some safety and security, and never quite finding it. The film does an excellent job at looking at the world around us from the point of view of the rabbits – how the most mundane things in our world, are deadly in theirs. There is a brief, but disturbing, section in which our heroes enter a warren with there is lots of room and lots of food – but its few rabbit residents seem nervous, scared and perhaps mentally unstable – they welcome the rabbits in, but there is something wrong here that they all sense – and eventually we’ll figure out what it is. The main conflict – that takes up the last half of the film or so – has our group meet another group of rabbits – led by General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) – a genuinely frightening animated villain – a large, scarred rabbit whose paranoia has led him, and his minions, to control their group with an Iron Fist – cracking down with physical brutality on the smallest of infractions, and keeping everyone trapped inside their warrens for most of the time. There are those on the inside who want out – and Hazel and company want to help. What makes this part of the story work so well is that, while he always remains a villain, by this point in the story you at least understand where Woundwort is coming from. Death is everywhere for the rabbits – and in his own way, he is trying hard to protect them.
In some ways, writer/director Martin Rosen really does allow the film to take the form of a classic animated film – including some comic relief, voiced this time by Zero Mostel, as a seagull who befriends the rabbits late in the proceedings. There are other signposts that show how a company like Disney could have approached the material, and made it less dark and more kid-friendly. It’s to Rosen’s credit that he never takes the film that direction.
The animation itself is, for the most part, merely serviceable. I appreciate the fact that Rosen and his animators didn’t want to make the characters look too cartoony – which they don’t – and the fact that he didn’t want to make snarling villains out of some of the scary creatures (the goofy looking dog for instance, who is just as deadly despite that appearance). However, a few sequences aside – the opening (which may have been directed by someone else), Fiver’s vision, etc. – the animation doesn’t look particularly impressive – it’s more workmanlike than anything else. The animation works – it doesn’t detract from the story by any means, but I think there are some missed opportunities here as well.
No, Watership Down is not for young children. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with movies that scare children – being scared can be a wonderful experience watching a movie, but I don’t think you want to traumatize your children, and that is what Watership Down will do to kids who are old enough to understand what is happening, but not old enough to process it. Yet, it is a great movie for that always tough to find movies for crowd around 10-12 – where they’re too old (or stubborn) for “kids’ stuff”, but not yet ready to deal with more mature movies (now, we simply plunk them down in front of whatever superhero movie has just come out – and if you’re a girl, tough luck, that’s all you get too – but maybe, one day, they’ll allow a girl superhero). Watership Down is a movie that can help children process and deal with death and their feelings towards it. Watch it with your older children – and be prepared to discuss it afterward. You’ll probably be surprised at just how much the kids will understand.