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Watership Down

Watership Down
Warner Home Video
1978 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 min. / Street date March 26, 2002 / 19.98
Starring the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Ralph Richardson, Terence Rigby, Roy Kinnear, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern, Joss Ackland
Film Editor
Terry Rawlings
Original Music Angela Morley, Mike Batt
Written by Martin Rosen from the novel by Richard Adams
Produced and Directed by Martin Rosen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In the late 70s, long before the revival sparked by The Little Mermaid (1989), feature animation was in a real slump. Disney offerings verged on the pitiful, and except for one-shots like Heavy Metal, few producers approached the format with anything interesting in mind. Watership Down, adapted from a serious adult bestseller, dared to be different in a way that almost guaranteed box office failure. Beautifully designed and animated, it made no concessions whatsoever to the kiddie cartoon market. Its story of survival and bravery among rabbit warrens in the English countryside is less like Peter Rabbit and more like Mad Max. It's the harrowing tale of a few daring hares journeying in hopes of finding a home of their own.


Crowded and unhappy in their regimented warren, Hazel (Voice: John Hurt) leads a group of similarly disenchanted rabbits in search of a new home. Fiver (Voice: Richard Briers) foresees dangers and finds them a perfect hilltop; but they are threatened by a nearby warren more dictatorial than the one they left. Needing mates that only their enemies can provide, they prevail only through their wits and courage.

Beginning with an interesting origin story for the whole rabbit race, Watership Down builds a fascinating world of rabbits that live in terror of predators, while oppressed by the patriarchal dictatorships of their underground warren communities. The rabbits here are by no means cute bunny characters - they're hard-bitten veterans and hopeful souls struggling against the legendary curse against their species. Prey for half the animals of creation, speed and cunning are their only defenses.

The story seems to be about humanity's struggle for basic security, but what we see is too intricate on its own terms to become a simple allegory. Watership Down gets us interested in its heroes and their problems. Regimented and militarized, the warren is policed by its aged leader's personal soldiers. Only a few, if any, rabbits are allowed to mate, with the leader siring many of the offspring.  1 Simple conversation can be interpreted as conspiratorial talk, punishable by expulsion into the deadly outside world. There's a lot of animated blood in this movie, as the rabbits are fierce and cruel fighters. Forget The Night of the Lepus or Monty Python and the Holy Grail: in this show You Will Believe a Bunny can Kill.

In the very first scene, prophet bunny Fiver has a vision of the sunset spreading blood across their meadow. Bloody death and merciless killing are almost an everyday part of this world - many a college-age adult remembers being scared out of their socks by Watership Down when they saw it for the first time. Nature is presented as it is, and not the Disney version: wonderful, adventurous, but very dangerous.

Fed up with the restraints of their overpopulated burrows, a pack of rebel heroes decides to 'emigrate' across the hedgerows to a promising hilltop where a new warren can be established. Along the way they meet a number of other creatures who help them, including a charming Russian seagull with very bad pronunciation, who keeps shouting at them, 'Silly Bunnies - where are your mates? No mates, no eggs, no eggs, no chicks!'

The jeopardy factor is high, as characters are killed off or disappear into unknown fates with a naturalistic randomness not usually found in children's fare: being cute doesn't at all guarantee you'll pull through. A visit to a farm to attempt to liberate some prospective female rabbits (these heroes clearly have one-track minds) doesn't turn out at all well, and our group becomes entangled with a hostile neighboring warren with even more brutal ideas about security than their original society.

Watership Down is so successful in pulling us into its struggle for survival, that one sequence takes us totally by surprise. The imminent death of a main character brings back a vision of the Black Rabbit of Death from the rabbit deity myth. To a genuinely creepy tune sung by Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes, the Black Rabbit searches for a suffering soul to convey to the next life. The effect is quite jarring.

The voices have appropriate English accents, but are always clear - you won't need the subtitles. John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, and Denholm Elliot are each recognizable, and assay their roles with precision and delicacy. As the voice of the Russki seagull, Zero Mostel is a lot less understandable, but very funny. The animals are warm, courageous, weak, threatening, trusting - the whole gamut of human expression. It's delightful to see an animated feature constructed from principles alien to the familiar Disney worldview. There's a tendency to reach for an Animal Farm - like analog for the show. When the predicament of the hero rabbits sinks in, we realize that it's about nature, survival, life and death, as simple as that.

Exciting, funny, suspenseful and unlike any animated feature ever made, Watership Down is a favorite around the Savant household. It so fascinated my youngest son when he was 11 years old, that he read the (rather thick) book from cover to cover, an important first literary experience.

Warner's DVD of Watership Down is a fine entertainment. The enhanced image captures all the beauty of the watercolor backgrounds and the fine points of the animation. The audio is forceful and sharp, with the music especially delicately rendered.

The contents list some interesting extras, all of which turn out to be one or two-page text items. An inviting listing called Watership Down Today, instead of being a docu, is three lines of text telling us that the real location for the story is now the property of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gee, thanks. There is a trailer, however.

The liner notes call the film enchanting, engaging, thrilling, and say it celebrates traditional values, which is true if you have long ears and a fuzzy tail. The values here are mostly pagan. No mention is made of the terror of the suffocation scene or the vision of construction machines plowing a field with blood. This is NOT for impressionable children ... but kids old enough to understand its story without becoming emotionally distraught will cherish it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Watership Down rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: March 24, 2002


1. ... that seems to make rebellion against the warren a de facto rebellion against The Father ... ?

A great and informative response from Savant correspondent (and conscience) "B", 3/26/02:

Dear Glenn: Haven't seen this since it came out, so I can't cite it that clearly. Your intro page makes a reference to kids being scared in 1982; I'm sure they were, but not by this film, which came out in '78. This one did okay, by the way, fairly well marketed by AvEmb; the ads and trailer did a decent job of making a distinction that this was a slightly more mature movie than, say, THE RESCUERS. [The family film market had hit bottom back then for reasons I still don't understand -- and I don't understand why it picked up later, either!] It's Art Garfunkel, for the record. Michael Hordern is tops as the "first they must catch you" voice. Angela Morley actually wrote the music; Marcus Dods conducted -- Mike Batt wrote the haunting "Bright Eyes."

All in all, it's not a bad animated movie by a guy who couldn't draw; he had originally planned, I think, to merely produce the movie and prepare a treatment. But Rosen ran into terrible creative differences with his chosen director, veteran animator John Hubley, fired him, and he just decided what he wanted and didn't want the movie to be, set up a studio -- and he was a director of an animated movie! [Zounds!]

It isn't badly done, really; the finest piece of animation is certainly the seagull. Rosen took an enormous amount of heat for his shabby treatment of Hubley -- some of which he deserved, as he said some uncharitable things about the guy, a great artist, I think. This was made a bit worse when Hubley unexpectedly died in '77. Rosen said many times that Hubley produced no usable material for the movie; that may be true, but that uncharacteristically stylish -- and stylized -- bit at the beginning of the movie (?) with the simply done little black bunny has Hubley all over it.

Anyway, it wasn't a failure. It wasn't a terribly expensive movie as animated films go -- Bakshi's LORD OF THE RINGS, also out that fall, cost over twice as much as this did -- and it did pretty well in the U.S., very well in Canada, huge in the UK, fine in Europe.

The success of WATERSHIP enabled Rosen to eventually mount another animated film, and this is the fascinating one. There are some movies you walk out of just shaking your head, wondering how or why they were made -- mostly because they're terrible, of course. Others -- well, others. They aren't bad. Not really. But they drive even dyed in the wool movie buffs, liberals, libertarians, what- have- you types to scratch their heads and wonder... what audience was this meant for?

THE PLAGUE DOGS. Adams' novel about two infected dogs that escape from a research lab and seek their freedom... which they're never going to find. This is pretty clear from chapter one of Adams' novel, I think. It also feels inevitable from the beginning of this relentlessly grim movie, which makes Bergman's SHAME, say, seem like BANANAS. Adams' book is quite engrossing; the characters are interesting and we become quite involved in their basic humanity and their plight. In Rosen's movie, we're watching two doomed cartoon dogs for 100 minutes or so. Waiting.


At the end, they drown. There's a great song by Alan Price at the end -- even better than "Bright Eyes," really -- but it doesn't help.

This played in '82 in the UK, some of Europe. Very slight U.S. play in '84: SF [Rosen was/is based there], a few other cities. I saw it in a tiny auditorium at NY's Film Forum. I left the theatre... well, you know.

Embassy/Nelson did a video at some point; I have an lp [ep?] tape, though I'd never show it to anyone. I can't take the responsibility. Best, Always,-- B

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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