As a film telling a story about a group of rabbits, we might expect a cute and comforting family-oriented cinematic experience. However, Watership Down is rather polarizing, judging from available reviews and commentary. Adapted from Richard Adams’ classic novel of animal fantasy of the same name, the film is a rarity, in that the emotional weight and serious themes of the novel are retained. This means the film is a true Animation for Adults, even though some presume a film about fuzzy bunnies must be for children. Which is not to say kids cannot watch the film, but there are several portrayals of nature as nature really occurs – including some darker tendencies of human nature – so parents should be aware, as they always should be anyway.
The story: a mystically prescient rabbit named Fiver feels an immense danger coming to their warren. Unfortunately, the chief rabbit and most others ignore the smallish rabbit’s warning. His brother, Hazel, knows Fiver is usually correct and organizes a group to leave together. Importantly, this includes one of the Owsla (a warren’s guard unit) named Bigwig – who can be counted on for strength – and Blackberry – a clever rabbit who can piece together thoughts in a way other rabbits cannot. Their talents, combined with Hazel’s leadership and Fiver’s gifts, will prove valuable as they set out to found a new warren of their own.
After many dangerous encounters, including predators from a badger to a fox, a warren of strangely content and well-fed rabbits, a farm with a dog, cat, and humans, as well as the moral decay of a militaristic warren run by General Woundwort, some positive balance is found in the key aid given by a gull named Kehaar. Hazel and company are eventually able to found their new warren on Watership Down.
Framing the film is the mythology of the rabbits: Frith is their god, represented as the sun in their stories. El-ahrairah is the original rabbit and rabbitdom’s culture hero, but his vanity gets him in trouble. He believes his children are the best and allows them to do whatever they will, so Frith decides to intervene: he differentiates each animal to give most of them ways and means to eat rabbits. Frith is not unfair though as even he likes fuzzy bunnies, so he gives El-ahrairah speed, amongst other gifts, to give rabbits a chance to survive amidst all the new predators.
This original myth sets up the structure of the film, which portrays a string of hardships Hazel and his band must endure. They (mostly!) escape numerous predators and dangers by using their speed and quick thinking. In literature, the term epic defines a narrative genre depicting the decline of a world, but from out of that decline, a new world is being born. Watership Down is an epic, depicting the world of these rabbit’s warren about to be destroyed utterly by impending disaster in the form of human development of their land. The new world to be born is Watership Down, where they will find less oppressive conditions, away from most predators and humans. The film does a wonderful job of portraying this dynamic, employing a very naturalistic artistic style for depicting the landscape. So often the focus of scenes is on the edges between natural areas, especially between human areas and more untouched natural areas. Along with a muted color scheme and beautifully rendered watercolor skyscapes, the film’s vision of the natural world is true-to-life: animals eat other species of animals, and often harm members of their own, but in between those moments, our better emotions find room for expression. Founding a new world, with room for all – both physically and mentally – is a goal worth working on.
This film was originally a project by John Hubley, one of the founding animators of UPA. UPA is the animation studio that revolutionized animation by bringing modern design elements to their work (including Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoingBoing, and various Oscar-winning shorts). After UPA, Hubley continued with his own independent, and still Oscar-winning, shorts. Hubley died early in the process, but his animation for the opening myth of Frith and El-ahrairah remains. Martin Rosen finished the production beautifully, and went on to an even more adult themed animated film, also from a Richard Adams’ novel, The Plague Dogs, as well as a three-year run on a Watership Down animated TV series, more squarely aimed at a younger audience.
Reviewing Watership Down seems like a good time to explore a wider perspective of animation and why AFA is focused on animation for adults. Though animation is most often thought of as being aimed at a young audience, there is absolutely no inherent reason why an older audience cannot enjoy animation. In fact, it is a form that should be used more directly for more mature projects. Animation powerfully accomplishes something no other form of film can, which is that through specific styles, it allows us to view the world in a variety of different ways. Simply filming the real world does not allow the variety of artistic styles animated film does. And those multiple styles directly enable style to relate to narrative intent and emotional content; animation creators can use style to send a message about what their narrative is about (of course, even in live action films the world is rarely shown as it is, unless you are working under Lars von Trier’s Dogme manifesto - talented Production Design departments work with other departments, i.e., lighting, etc. to create their own artistic versions of the world). But in animation, everything is created. Art – as a perception of the world through a perspective not our own – allows us to imagine new ways of being, which allows us to move forward in our lives and try to create in reality whatever it is we can imagine.
The world as seen by rabbits can be imagined as really being the way it is presented in Watership Down. Even more important is how their world is shown to exist right up against our own. As the natural world grew smaller amidst rising industrialism, and continues to do so, we are always moving closer toward our non-human animal neighbors. Thus, the epic end of a world in this film is one caused by humans, portrayed her as unaware of the consequences. Through such films, we can find awareness. Today, as the natural environment is changing with dire results for our lives, a movie often called depressing should be anything but that. Life and death are unchangeable constants in all our lives. But how often do we get the opportunity to do something epic, i.e., build a new world out of a fading old one? Challenges can be met, though I guess Hazel and company had it easier: they only had to move to the next hill over.
Available from Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray and DVD at Amazon and, wherever fine films are sold.