Written by Davy
When talking about movies for kids, people will always bring up The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and even Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but these films contain some really darkly questionable moments, that most parents will definitely object to. But in those terms, I think the one film that arguably outdoes them all in scarring children for life, the one film that they haven’t forgotten since their childhood is Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel of the same name. It was one of the first animated films that was directed more towards adults, and the first to use Dolby sound.
The really grim story surrounds a group of rabbits trying to survive the horrors of the modern world. After the bold opening where a unique style connects a myth as told by rabbits, the action escalates to the present day where we meet Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) and Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), two brothers living in a very barren landscape somewhere in the English countryside. Fiver, based on his personality, revels in an almost unbearable nervousness that surrounds the entire film, and this is apparent when a construction company makes its way upon the rabbits’ territory, destroying it.
After failing to warn his elders of impending doom and tragedy, he flees his home along with a ragtag group of dreamers. The tribe begin to make their way through the country, and use their instincts to dodge dogs, cats, badgers, and other deadly threats. Along their tough journey to freedom, they befriend a pack of does, who are also trying to escape the barren countryside. They seek immediate shelter and safety in a populated burrow where they try to ignore the bleak consequences of their journey. Unfortunately for them, they encounter a starkly totalitarian burrow led by General Woundwort that eventually leads to a brutal and bizarre fight to the death.
In terms of its story, the narrative somehow falters and the animation does tend to show its age. However, the film manages to be uncomfortably honest about the nature of freedom, and the horrible lengths we go to in order to make it happen, even if it no one leaves unscathed in the end.
When discussing its notoriety, there are some moments that do standout, such as not only the terrifying finale, but also Art Garfunkel’s rendition of “Bright Eyes”. In terms of 1970s popular culture, the song does feel dated, and it doesn’t fit the very dark subject matter of the film. Overall, Watership Down is a powerful opposite of all the Disney flicks before and after it, and it has more in common with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for which there was also a adult-leaning animated film from 1954.
The good news is that this is Criterion’s first animated film. The sad news is that the new Blu-ray & DVD release is unusually light in the supplements area, but they are some really worthwhile ones. Besides the trailer, there is a picture-in-picture storyboard comparison (Blu-ray only) for the entire film. There is also a wonderful new interview with director Rosen, as he discusses the film’s difficult legacy. There is a vintage featurette called Defining a Style, which centers on some of the key animators and other artists who explain their contributions to the film. My favorite supplement is the new interview with director Guillermo del Toro, as he discusses what makes Watership Down a unique film and why it continues to have an impact on him and his career. Rounding out the supplements is a foldout essay by Gerald Jones.
In the history of animation, Watership Down does stand out it is own, because it dares to go beyond its ‘children’s film’ sleeves, to speak the truth of the dangers of modernization. I think that it is a film that deserves a new audience, especially those who are willing to appreciate it.