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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 a few years later, few producers approached the format with anything interesting. Watership Down, adapted from a serious adult bestseller, dared to be different in a way that almost guaranteed boxoffice 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 rabbits journeying in hope of finding a home of their own.
Beginning with an interesting origin story for the whole rabbit race, Watership Down builds a fascinating world of rabbits, who 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 The simplest 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 among themselves 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 (voice: Richard Briers) has a vision of the sunset spreading blood across their meadow. Bloody death and merciless killing are almost an everyday part of these animals' 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, 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 make it. 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 that has 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 diety myth. To a genuinely creepy tune sung by Art Garfunkle, the Black Rabbit searches for a suffering soul to convey to the next life... the effect is quite jarring.
An English production, the voices have the appropriate accents, but are always clear - you won't need the subtitles. John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, and Denholm Elliot are all recognizable, and assay their roles with precision and delicacy. Zero Mostel is the voice of the Russki seagull, and he's 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 figure out an Animal Farm - like analog for the show, until the predicament of the hero rabbits sinks in and you realize that it's about nature and survival and 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 anamorphic-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 ... if you have long ears, maybe - the values here are mostly pagan. It makes no mention 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:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 24, 2002
1. ... which seems to make rebellion against the warren a de facto rebellion against The Father ... ?