“All the world will be your enemy, prince with a thousand enemies, and when they find you, they will kill you......but first they have to catch you. Digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning, be cunning and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed”.
Usually an animated movie is one of two things, a bright and colorful fantasy film or a really funny and cartoonish kid flick but here is something very different and special. The 1978 animated movie “Watership Down” is a serious, even grim tale that many will find relentless and depressing but they may also find that it’s powerful, poetic, moving and beautiful in a very unique way. It doesn't pull any punches, violence and moments of disturbing death are ever present, portrayed in a manner that is astonishingly honest for a cartoon. As a result, it’s a rare animated film that really aims for a mature audience. The film is based off the beloved novel of the same name by Richard Adams, respectfully capturing the essence and feel of his story perfectly. The film was also directed by Martin Rosen, who also directed another animated film called “The Plague Dogs”, which was even more intense and depressing then this film, I mean boy was that ever a downer. But “Watership Down”, while still a film filled with despair and dread, there’s still this really magical and almost meditative feel to it.
The plot goes like this, a small group of rabbits decide to leave their warren (which is like a big herd of rabbits living in one aria) because there burrow is about to become the location of a construction site. The majority of this film is use following these rabbits on their journey to find a new home, which turns out to be the hill side called Watership Down (which is a real location in the north of Hampshire, England). Unlike other classic journey pictures like “The Land Before Time” or “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey”, this film really makes you feel like you’re there with the characters, feeling what they feel and dreading what they dread. The element of danger is always present in this film, you actually begin to feel like something bad could happen at any second and the film does a great job making the surroundings and locations feel very hostile without ever showing too much. The animators did a great job making forests look really threatening and really huge in comparison to a little defenseless rabbit and it gets you to tense up a bit, it also gets you thinking to yourself “Is something going to happen here” or “Are they going to make it out of this okay?”
The voice acting in this film is also very good, there’s never a moment when I feel like there’s an actor behind a microphone and it all comes off as very genuine. All the dialog and interactions between characters are all very timeless, there’s no pop cultural references, no modern day hip talk and it all sounds so refreshing. Actually there aren’t too many clichés that you’d expect from an animated film, there’s no female character that only exists for an obvious love interest, there’s no silly comedy character, well there’s this annoying bird character voiced by the late Zero Mostel but he’s not trying to be that funny. Best of all is that the lead rabbit named Hazel is voiced by one of my favorite voice actors of all time, the one and only John Hurt, who I’ve loved in other films, most notably other animated films like Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 film “The Lord of the Rings”. There’s just this wait to his voice, he brings a lot of passion to his characters and it’s just such a cool voice.
Now most journey films end with the characters reaching their destination, however in this film, they reach their destination mid way through the film and then the plot changes a little. The third act off this film is spent with our lead character rescuing a group of rabbits who are all suffering under the terrine of this monstrous, power hungry rabbit named General Woundwort. It seemed so odd to get a villain so late in the film, especially when the first half of the movie was spent showing how the whole world was already there enemy. But to be fare, he is a good villain, nothing cartoony, very sinister, very menacing and it felt really good to see the hero’s stand up to this tyrant.
Okay now here’s my big warning about this film, it is not for the faint hearted. If you don’t think you can handle seeing cute little rabbits drowning in mud and getting all bloody, then you’re probably not going to like this. It’s definitely not a film for little kids, the story is certainly aimed more for adults despite the fact that it looks like an animated movie for children, the cover has two cute little bunny’s on it and it looks like this really bright and fluffy flick. Even the opening scene is very cartoony as we get this back story on the creation of life and it looks like something from cartoon network. Then when the story starts the animation changes styles and there’s suddenly constant drama, lots of gore, lots of death and there’s this close up of a dog just after ripping the flesh off a rabbit and I can imagine that keeping kids up at night. But this isn’t a complaint, I like how this film is really bringing on legitimist drama and handling it in such an adult manner. Issues of leaving your home and finding a new place to live are also looked at in a very mature manner and it’s all very admirable. Just keep in mind that it’s not a film for everyone.
Now while the movie is filled with a lot of really desperate conflict, drama, violence, despair and dread, there’s also this really magical and almost meditative feel to it. Watching it from beginning to end is almost like having a very surreal dream, where you leave your world behind and you experience fear, you experience beauty, you experience this very strong atmosphere and while it’s all different, you still get this familiar feeling that it’s actually not to different from the world you left behind. I especially love all these different dream sequences and vision sequences, where we get a lot of really strong visuals and it’s great how the tones of these scenes can change. Sometimes there really intense and disturbing and other times soothing and comforting. There’s a song called “Bright Eyes”, which is also very calming and beautiful to listen to and I really love this animation. The backgrounds are so rich and fluent, it’s literally like going to an art museum and watching a classic painting come to life before your eyes.
It’s far from perfect, there are a few little problems here and there, for example, I loved how subtle the flow of the film was in the first two acts, it really allowed you to breath and it let the characters breath but then the third act (while still very good) gets a little too rushed. Another problem I had was the ending, it’s not bad, in fact its quiet beautiful but it was so sudden and quick. We get this really intense and urgent climax, then as soon as it all gets resolved and the villain defeated were immediately thrown into the epilog, without us finding out what happens to the main characters. We assume that most of them survived because we see families of rabbits in the epilog talking about the journeys of their ancestors but I really got attached to the characters, I wanted to see what happened to them and it was just so sudden to just be thrown into the future. There was an animated "Watership Down" TV series that followed up on the events of the film, it ran for three seasons and there’s news of a possible CGI remake in the works, which I honestly don’t think we need, just let this film be its own little gem.
Overall, it may not be perfect for everyone but I’m still really glad I saw it because it was just such a breath of fresh air to see such a mature animated film that doesn’t use so many tired animated movie clichés. While I don’t think I can properly recommend this film to all viewers, I do still invite them to give it a watch because it is a very nice little treat, beautifully animated, true to the source material and very different from other animated movies that where so accustomed to. I give “Watership Down” down 3 ½ stars.