Watership Down (1978)

Review #1,217

Director:  Martin Rosen
Cast:  John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson
Plot:  A group of rabbits flee their doomed warren and face many dangers to find and protect their new home.

Genre:  Animation / Adventure / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  Hollywood Classics

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies.  And when they catch you, they will kill you.  But first they must catch you…”

I will have the privilege to meet Martin Rosen in a couple of weeks’ time, and I want to thank him.  I want to thank him for making an uncompromisingly dark animated feature, when everyone else at that time, particularly those in the States, saw animation as a medium of joy and optimism.  Watership Down, only one of two animated features under his belt, is adapted from Richard Adams’ novel.  Rosen’s other work, The Plague Dogs (1982), was also adapted from Adams. 

Watership Down centers on a colony of rabbits whose lives are affected when one of them, Fiver, a kind of rabbit seer, has an apocalyptic vision of a doomed warren in the hands of humans.  A small group who believe in Fiver disband from the colony, wanting to seek for safer pastures.  Rosen’s film is a journey of tumult and uncertainty, but also of freedom and hope. 

By having rabbits adopt human-like behaviours (they speak!), Rosen focuses on their personalities as intelligent if territorial creatures.  This is set in the backdrop of a picturesque English countryside with farms, forests and rivers.  Such is the beauty of the hand-drawn animation that you can almost smell the environment. 

Watership Down doesn’t shy away from graphic scenes of brutality – bunnies are being bloodied, even strangled.  It also explores themes of hostility, mutiny and survival, quite simply material that adults would better resonate with.  This is why the animation has been regarded as unsuitable for kids, not to mention the film’s pacing may require a certain amount of patience with Rosen privileging drama over action, often from an observational lens.

Watership Down may not be one of the medium’s greatest examples, but its cinematic and cultural reputation as a landmark in British independent animation remains untouched.  Its maturity continues to inspire animation directors to take on the medium in a darker, more sobering light.  It may have its flaws (the voice of the seagull whom the rabbits befriend is quite frankly irritating), but the film is certainly not to be missed. 

Verdict:  A landmark in British animation that explores dark themes of hostility, mutiny and survival through a group of talking rabbits, but the pacing may not be for everyone.


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