Watership Down (1978)

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This animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ classic novel proves to  be a slightly unnerving experience, since the anthropomorphic rabbits and early-Disney-esque visuals seem to say “Yeah, this is totally legit for kids,” while the subject matter tells you a decidedly different tale. I was intrigued by various online accounts of people being totally psychologically fucked by watching this as children. Oh the blood! The screams of the dying rabbits! I was sold. I had to check it out.

I had previously tried to read the book along with Adams’ ‘The Plague Dogs,’ but they were thick volumes with long chapters, and my interest in literature is admittedly a fluctuating thing. So I rented the movie, and I am pleased to report that this movie is a work of art, particularly in the visual sense. The watercolor-created landscape framing every shot is gorgeous and genuinely a masterpiece. This isn’t the cheap animation being flaunted in modern children’s films and Saturday Morning cartoons.

The artists had a vision, and they carried out that vision to stunning effect. The animation of the rabbit characters is impressive too. But damn, “Watership Down” is not only a grim movie and absolutely inappropriate for anyone under thirteen, it’s downright eerie at times, portraying the hostility of nature and the finality of death in a dark, unsettling way. This isn’t the kind of movie where a hip, sarcastic talking rabbit voiced by an A-list actor is seemingly injured, jumps up unharmed, and cracks a joke to a chorus laughs from the audience. It is dark, dark, dark. It portrays it’s rabbit protagonists with the grim earnestness of players in a Greek tragedy.

Rabbits Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and his timid brother, Fiver (Richard Briers) live out a peaceful existence in a warren of coexisting bunnies. That is, until Fiver, who has the gift of foresight, declares that a catastrophe will shortly take place, causing the two siblings and a group of others to flee toward an uncertain future. Turns out, he was right. Real estate developers fill in the warren with piles of dirt, killing all the remaining rabbits except for one.

And with the only female in Hazel’s group promptly snatched up by a hawk, the weary travelers need women. Quite literally. But the Efrafans, a hostile, fascist warren of rabbits, are not willing to give up their dames, or come to a settlement, for that matter. The leader of the Efrafans, the frankly terrifying dictator General Woundwort (Harry Andrews,) tortures his subordinates to keep them compliant and in constant fear of their leader. Who knew seemingly docile bunnies could be such fucking assholes?

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I don’t know, maybe it’s different with rabbits (who screw around and thereupon breed like, well… rabbits,) but the Efrefan’s essential rape and prostitution of their women (they pimp out their ladies to bucks who wish to partake) paired with the protagonist’s blase insistence that women are needed to reproduce and continue their legacy (no mention of whether the girls want them) reminded me of the military men in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (” I promised them women.”)

Hazel and the gang can’t exactly be faulted- we are dealing with rabbits after all, who are more interested in procreation for the sake of procreation than wining and dining does. However, the treatment of women as babymakers is slightly disturbing (realize that by no means am I calling “Watership Down” a sexist film- the main priority here is survival, not romance.) As a modern woman watching it, it was a little creepy, although you definitely have to take it in context, as well as realize that “Watership Down” is basically a commentary on survival and warfare, and Warfare and rape and prostitution are often a package deal.

The inclusion of rabbit religion and a bunny political system was pretty awesome and creative and as mentioned before, the film was visually stunning but I wasn’t quite so enamored with the plot. It was not really so much what was wrong with the plot as that it didn’t transport me the way the world-building and animation did. The voice acting was excellent, with Richard Brier sporting a fittingly cagey inflection as the perpetually nervous Fiver while John Hurt provides sturdy backup as the strong, hearty Hazel.

On a final note, let me beseech you not to perpetuate the cycle of terror and adamantly avoid renting this movie for your kids. There is a scene where a rabbit, Bigwig, is caught in a snare and he is bleeding and foaming from the mouth and it is frankly extremely disturbing and gruesome. The movie is harrowing and sometimes downright off-putting, with lots of (animated) blood and rabbits killing and torturing rabbits. The BBFC (what’s up with them) rated this U for all ages, which is absolute insanity considering the children who were scarred (not joking) by this movie.

For adults, “Watership Down” is a contemplative and inventive film. But, not even kidding, kids who watch this are going to have a fear of rabbits for the rest of their lives. Going in a pet store might be tricky, and paying your kid’s therapy bills for the rest of your natural lives is no fun either. I credit all my remaining sanity to the fact that I never watched “Watership Down” as a child. I recommend “Watership Down” to adults who are interested in films with a slightly different and uncanny vibe that are visually stunning and thematically unsettling.

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One thought on “Watership Down (1978)”

  1. The irony is that the parents who allowed their children to watch that were probably the same parents who would never in a million years have allowed their children to read a Goosebumps book, or something overtly a part of the horror genre. Just goes to show what an impact genre categorization has on the children’s market.

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