- John Hurt
- Richard Briers
- Michael Graham Cox
- Harry Andrews
- Denholm Elliott
- Zero Mostel
An animated tale of survival in nature that is surprisingly mature( and many would say traumatising), Watership Down is often referred to as a film that terrified a generation of kids who thought they were seeing a film about cute bunnies. Yet while brutality is certainly not shied away from here, it’s the soul and message of Watership Down that shines the brightest.
In a warren in the English countryside, a group of rabbits live with their own beliefs on creation and how life is supposed to be. It seems so peaceful, but it is about to be shaken to the core. One rabbit by the name of Fiver has a strange vision of the destruction of their warren and warns everyone to get out. His brother Hazel believes him but they are shunned by the chief rabbit. Along with a small band of other rabbits, they stealthily leave the warren at night, joined by one of the Owsla( or in human terms, person of authority and order) Bigwig, who was originally skeptical of Fiver’s vision. They encounter all manner of danger in their search for a new home, including vicious predators, the human world and the only doe being picked off by a bird. Now without a woman among their number, they have to find some in order to continue their species. Aided by a crazed but helpful gull named Kehaar, they may just find it. It’s when the group encounters the tyrannical General Woundwort , who rules over his warren of rabbits with supreme brutality, that things turn very dark and tense for everyone. For Woundwort is a brute who will kill anything as soon as look at them, if they disobey his regime. With Hazel at the helm, he mounts an attempt to free the does from the harsh control of Woundwort. But it definitely isn’t going to be easy to create this dream paradise for them all to live in once everything is over.
Martin Rosen beautifully captures the poignant emotion and red and tooth in claw depiction of nature in the Richard Adams’s novel. Though a bit more on the running time might have been in order, Watership Down is really hard to find fault with. The animation, which boasts the feeling of landscape, watercolour painting and a naturalistic colour palette, is second to none and partnered with some unusual dreamlike sequences that stand out for their terror and vision. I mean, when we see what became of the original warren it is some skin crawling stuff. The claustrophobia of rabbits squashed on top of each other, their red eyes glowing as they are gassed is freaky and nightmare inducing. And people thought this was a movie simply for young kids? Now sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between certain rabbits, but this is a minor hitch in what is otherwise an immensely moving and startlingly honest look at how nature works. The morals of sticking together and the dangers of oppressive tyranny are well observed, with obvious parallels to the Second World War. The thematic value of Watership Down is what has made it endure for so long. It doesn’t pander to the audience or patronise, and while there are those who criticise the violence and horror, they should remember that the overall message of the film is one of finding peace, even though life is a hard journey. But as violence and shock are big parts of the movie, they can’t be ignored. I must admit to still being surprised how visceral many of the scenes are that are featured here, they still hold up on gruesome and unflinching score. The fighting, blood and bleakly brutal vision of nature is never far from view and many scenes have a lot of palpable tension. But in a way, featuring genuine violence( albeit involving anthropomorphic bunnies), it presents something different in an animated movie. Many times we go in expecting something squarely aimed at children, but I’m certain many were surprised when they discovered the bleak overtones and poignancy of Watership Down. I have massive amounts of respect for Watership Down in retaining the novel’s unflinching examination of survival and not dumbing it Down one ounce for audience satisfaction. Sometimes films try to be just a little bit too kid friendly, to the point that the film is ridiculously cheery. Believe me when I say, that is most definitely not the case when it comes to Watership Down. And I can’t review this movie without mentioning the haunting addition of ‘Bright Eyes’ sung with conviction by Art Garfunkel. It’s bound to bring a tear to the eyes.
The talented voice cast, featuring John Hurt, Richard Briers and Michael Graham Cox are exemplary at giving life to their characters and finding heart there. With such a wide breadth of voice work( also including Harry Andrews as the terrifying Woundwort, Denholm Elliott as a rabbit whose as enigmatic as he is creepy and the comedy stylings of Zero Mostel as a bird that helps the main rabbits out), it’s hard to not appreciate the ability and skill that each of them brings to the table.
Visceral yet beautifully rendered and vividly thematic, Watership Down is a film to treasure, no matter how graphic some of it is. After all, you’ll probably never forget this movie once you’ve viewed it.