WATERSHIP DOWN, 1978
Starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Terence Rigby, Zero Mostel,
All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you... but first they must catch you.
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How many parents must have taken their young children to see “Watership Down” back in 1978, believing it to be an innocent story about cute little bunnies? To be sure, most of the rabbits are quite cuddly and bursting with personality. But Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down” is a brutal tale of survival, and these rabbits are prepared to fight each other tooth and nail.
The film opens with the rabbits’ version of the Creation story. The world’s first rabbit incurs the wrath of God and so makes his people the most hunted creatures on the planet. Cut to the English countryside, where a young rabbit named Fiver predicts the destruction of his warren. Fiver’s brother Hazel believes the prophecy, and encourages a few of their friends to join them in their search for a new home. On their journey, they will encounter many dangers: cats, dogs, hawks, humans, and even other rabbits.
When a happily-married couple is vacationing on a boat by themselves, the husband (a overly-dashing Grant Williams) is exposed to a random radiation cloud, causing him to shrink daily. He and his wife hold out hope that a cure will be found in time, but Williams soon becomes a celebrity freak show, and then, a miniscule prisoner in his own basement.
The animation is lovely and has a very distinctive style. While the good rabbits generally look very sweet, the animators excel at making the bad rabbits look monstrous. There’s absolutely nothing sweet about the hulking, scarred General Woundwort.
Part of what sets this movie apart from other cartoons (well, Western cartoons, anyway) is the surprising amount of violence and gore. Fiver’s vision of destruction is startlingly simple: he imagines a field soaked in the blood of countless slaughtered rabbits. Important characters are frequently injured and killed, and the movie doesn’t spare us the details. One of the rabbits has his throat torn out, and we watch as his blood drains away…in close-up.
There’s a fascinating complexity to the rabbits’ culture. They frequently address their religious beliefs, and in one touching scene, a character selflessly offers himself to God in exchange for the safety of his friends. There are also a few words of rabbit language, or “Lapine,” sprinkled throughout the dialogue. The filmmakers wisely avoid explaining what these words mean, letting us infer what they mean from the context. For instance, by the end of the movie, we have a pretty good idea what “hraka” means.
“Watership Down” doesn’t beat us over the head with the wickedness of humans. Rabbits are caught in snares and shot at, but for the most part, it’s just a case of farmers defending their crops. When the film does point the finger at humans, it chooses a valid argument: why did developers have to poison a thriving warren of live rabbits and bulldoze them into oblivion? Naturally, we’re treated to that scene as well. Thanks for the childhood trauma, movie.
Angela Morley’s music is perfectly suited to the film, by turns peaceful and militaristic (and Kehaar’s flying theme is downright loopy). Although theme songs can be a tricky business, especially when they’re showcased halfway through a movie, Mike Batt’s song “Bright Eyes” is very appropriate here. Performed by Art Garfunkel, it underscores one of the best scenes in scenes in the film, capturing the fragility of the characters.
“Watership Down” is the ideal movie for those who like animated films with a bit of an edge. Haunting and unexpectedly epic, it shows us the dark side of nature while still reminding us of its beauty.