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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 92 Minutes
- Watership Down: A conversation with the filmmakers
- Defining a Style: Watership Down
- Storyboard to Screen
Cast: John Hurt. Zero Mostel. Denholm Elliott. Sir Ralph Richardson. Richard Briers.
Director: Martin Rosen.
Writers: Martin Rosen. Richard Adams (book).
As a kid I absorbed any movies I could get my hands on, tearing first through a series of rented and purchased RCA Selectvision video discs and then through the eventual rise to power of VHS. The years 1982-1990 were a period of great exploration, fueling my love of horror, pulp, and cop movies and building my hate for inspirational films as well as many of the films masquerading as comedy. I also became almost diametrically opposed to many animated films because I felt that they insulted the intelligence of their audience on nearly every occasion. You can make smart kid’s films as Pixar has subsequently proven.
I can count the
films that truly influenced my life on two hands, and Watership Down is
high on the list. I had never seen animation used for anything even
remotely approaching serious drama and the visions of spectral rabbit
gods and the grievous loss of life from cute characters I’d grown
attached to was an eye-opener for an eight or nine year old kid. It was
smart, it was rich, and it was animated. The rest fell into place. Now
in its 30th year as a feature film, the animated adaptation of the
Richard Adams classic has arrived in a deluxe edition.
In the stark and earthy introduction to the film we are greeted with the rabbit trickster El-ahrairah, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies. His story told through this simplistic but iconic bit of animation we discover why the rabbit is a creature built on speed, cunning, and constant nervousness. It’s the result of trying to sneak one past Frith, the animal god that curses the rabbit while blessing its enemies with the tools to kill. Given a chance at redemption by its god, the rabbit sticks his head in a hole to avoid shame. Frith then blesses El-ahrairah in the hindquarters, giving him and his species the telltale thumper legs that propel them so efficiently through the underbrush. Because of his error, the rabbit kingdom is forever hunted, always on the run, and completely reliant on their ability to evade, for once caught they will most certainly be eaten.
It’s a great sequence, one that haunted me as a kid with its Grim Reaper-esque Black Rabbit of Inlé bounding the sky and the sharp-toothed predators making short work of rabbits. Coupled with the film’s later moments of immediate and final violence and the portrayal of household family pets as ruthless killers, there’s a lot here to help children see the world from a different perspective.
The film then introduces us to our heroes, a group of free-thinking rabbits whose home is being encroached on by man and their machines who decide to do something about it. Our protagonist is Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), a nervous runt in the warren who has visions of blood running through the fields who convinces his stronger and more respected brother Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) to take him to the elders to warn them. Dismissed and told to fall in line, Fiver rebels, taking a handful of rabbits with him on a voyage to find a safe new home. The oppressive leaders try to foil them, but the small group soon finds themselves on their own but not before the lone female is dispatched by a hawk in a chilling little moment.
Along the way the rabbits encounter cats, dogs, conspiratorial rabbits who are willing to lose members of their ranks in exchange for food from farmers, and an extremely militant faction of rabbits hell bent on keeping the heroes from finding mates. So many obstacles, added to which Fiver’s visions (including a very haunting one featuring Art Garfunkel’s hit song from the film, Bright Eyes) make the film quite an experience for a young mind. The real merit of the thing isn’t the fact it is a gateway film to the harsh reality around us but how intelligently it showcases the banding together of these cast-offs and the way they make decisions and proactively find their way.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff here but seeing the way these animals interact is what makes Watership Down so special. Fiver and Hazel and Bigwig are such strong characters and their journey is so effortlessly filled with subtext that the film is truly a gateway to adulthood for its audience. I’m not sure it has nearly as much value to an adult, especially since the animation has aged rather poorly, but it’s a remarkable film in that it exists at all. These characters and their supporting crew (Zero Mostel’s silly bird Kehaar being a standout) and their movie came at just the right time both for me and its medium. The 80’s paved the way for more aggressively stylized and marketed animated features, something which has brought us to today’s extremely competitive and focus grouped children’s feature world. A Watership Down would never come through the studio system today unless spearheaded by someone with the last name Bird, Miyazaki, or Lasseter. It’s a straightforward, somewhat rickety with age bit of heartfelt storytelling and one that still alternates between warming my heart and softening my tear ducts.
The mythology is so rich, the way that Adams (and in turn Rosen) recalls the journey of Moses or Homer’s Odyssey without it feeling overt and how the most simple parts of human life seem so menacing in the right context is not easy to achieve without feeling heavy handed. This film is anything but, a sort of naturalistic war epic distilled to its purest form.
I’m anxious to share it with my daughter in a couple of years, because this is one of the seminal films of my life even though time hasn’t been utterly kind to it. For me it’s still a magical little movie. As a child the thematic statements about the rape of the environment, fascism, and the parallels to Homer never registered but as an adult they offset the fact that the film’s nowhere near as brutal and relentless as I’d remembered. It’s a good trade, lending the film almost more resonance for an adult who appreciates how gently it sold him on concepts well above his years when he first let it in his eyes.
A classic then. A classic now.
Part of the reason has to be that so many of the voice actors are dead. An alarming amount, really. Many of them who died in their 40’s and 50’s, yet no one speaks of the “Watership Down Curse”. What it does have is a nice discussion on the conception of the movie from its creator and editor, a laid back look at the obstacles and seat-of-the-pants manner in which the film was ultimately made. It’s not even twenty minutes long and it seems these two could have recorded a nice scene-specific commentary track for the same cost, but alas.
There’s also another twenty-odd minutes devoting to the style of the film and the creation of a character, featuring the great character actor Joss “You’ve lost ANOTHER submarine?” Ackland. It’s pretty slight stuff, especially since this film is a classic, but it’s better than nothing.
The film was never a stunner in the visual and aural presentation, but it comes across as good as possible though truly showing its age and the comfortingly analog manner in which the movie was made.
Don’t but this for the special features, though it is a must for the collection of anyone who was either as touched by it as I was or someone who wants their young children to understand that there’s a whole world of classics that came between Walt Disney’s golden years and 80’s renaissance.
8.0 out of 10
The PackageI expected more from the 30th Anniversary of a film that has managed to remain somewhat relevant throughout the years but where something bearing the Walt Disney brand would be arriving with massive fanfare and promotion, this little guy arrives with barely a trumpet sounding. While this version boasts more features than the threadbare first DVD release, it’s still not overwhelmingly appointed.