Over the course of the last year and change, I’ve become ever-increasingly fascinated by, for lack of a better term, the non-Disney breed of animated film, generally from the ’70s and ’80s. I did a whole series of essays about the work of Hayao Miyazaki, though he’s certainly still generally more family-oriented, and I more recently became enamored of the work of independent American animator and director Ralph Bakshi (I reviewed his fantastic 1977 film Wizards in this very column at the beginning of the year). But, my desire to seek out new and different animation of the past continued and I eventually came upon (via the Criterion Collection) the 1978 British animated film based on a runaway and very offbeat bestselling novel by Richard Adams. This is one of the most singular and engaging films in the medium I’ve yet seen. This is Watership Down.
Watership Down is an experience you’re not likely to have again, because it’s based on a book that’s certainly not like any “children’s” literature you’ve probably read, unless you’ve read Watership Down. It’s got friendly-looking bunny rabbits on an adventure to find a new home, but it’s also intensely troubling, oddly spiritual, and amazingly violent, especially for a non-anime film. I mean, Akira is uber-bloody, but it doesn’t have bunnies as its main characters. (Sidebar: what if they remade Akira but did it with bunnies instead? Holy crap, imagine it!) There’ve certainly been some scary or more intense Disney animated films, and something like Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH could surely scare the living crud out of you, but none of those were as intense, or as everyday, as the violence presented here is. It’s mighty rough.
Adams’ novel, published in 1972, became a national bestseller in the UK and was one of the most discussed of the decade. American-born UK literary agent Martin Rosen fell in love with the book immediately and wanted to branch out on his own to make it into a movie. He quickly determined that animation was the only viable medium for such a story, but he wanted to make sure the work’s tone and impact remained pure, free of making it too watered-down and less potent. He hired animator John Hubley, known for a very particular style, to direct, but Hubley died in 1977 before the film could be completed, so Rosen himself took over and assembled a team of animators and basically made the whole thing independently, eventually getting funding from, of all things, several prominent banks. Rosen wanted to avoid being too “cartoony” and had his animators make the characters’ movements as true to life as possible. That way the danger’s more real, you understand. Because the book was such a phenomenon, Rosen actually found the voice cast easy to recruit, which is why we get people like John Hurt, Richard Briers, Sir Ralph Richardson, Nigel Hawthorne, and Zero Mostel to listen to during it.
The film begins with an expressionistically-designed prologue wherein our narrator (Michael Hordern, who is also the voice of Frith, or God) tells us that Frith created all animals equally, but eventually the rabbits multiplied more than they should have and there soon was a food shortage. Frith asked the prince of the Rabbits to control his people, but is met with scoffing and derision, and so as punishment, Frith gave every animal a skill in order to obtain food, and some he made into predators to kill rabbits. He called the Rabbit leader “Prince of a Thousand Enemies” and as the population of rabbits began to go down, Frith decided to be kind and bestowed upon the Rabbits the gifts of speed and cunning; the world would be cruel to them, but they could survive on their wit and quickness, and when it was their time to leave the mortal world, the Black Rabbit would come to them, as though in a dream.
In modern day, we meet Hazel, a headstrong and very clever young rabbit and his meek and skittish brother Fiver. Fiver has strange and unsettling visions that are never explained, involving the rabbit’s warren being covered in blood. He beseeches Hazel to get the other rabbits to leave. The Chief Rabbit listens to the pleas but believes it to be foolish and orders his security head Bigwig to deal with them. Bigwig, fortunately, believes Fiver’s strange warnings and the three of them, plus a small group of others, escape, despite being chased by police bunnies for insubordination and inciting fear. Right away, Violet is killed by a hawk and the group has no female, which will surely spell doom for them.
On their way to a new warren, they come across many dangers, from without (like dogs, cats, rats, and hawks) as well as from other rabbits, like the effete and mysterious Cowslip who attempts to lead them into his warren, knowing that the farmer in the area traps rabbits. Bigwig is caught in a snare and nearly strangles to death. They eventually find a farm that contains a hutch of female rabbits, necessary for a new warren, and try to free them, but can’t. They come upon the place that Fiver envisioned, Watership Down, and establish a warren, with Hazel as chief. They get word that their own warren was demolished by humans and the rest of their brethren were killed, as Fiver feared. They meet an injured seagull named Kehaar who becomes their lookout, and they get rumblings of a strange group of rabbits called the Efrafa, a huge warren with many females. They are warned not to go there, though, as the place is a totalitarian community run by the terrifying General Woundwort. But for Watership Down to survive, they’re going to have to free as many of the females as they can, and more will surely die in the process.
That sounds a bit like the plot of a fantasy war movie, and in a lot of ways that’s exactly what it is. The story is very dangerous, slightly weird and ethereal, and with lots of action and death. But they’re all rabbits. Despite the attempt to remain mostly realistic with the visual style (all of Watership Down and the surrounding areas are meticulously based on real places in Hampshire), there are moments of near psychedelia, usually involving Fiver’s visions, but sometimes bleeding (pardon the term) into the main events. There is also a pop song, “Bright Eyes,” sung by Art Garfunkel, in the middle of the movie that was written for the film and put in the body of the story to get more funding. It’s weird and slightly out of place, but it’s underneath a dream sequence and it blends in there quite nicely, considering.
Watership Down is a film almost unable to classify. On the one hand, it could be for children, but on the other it’s much too intense for them. Famously, the British Board of Film Classification passed the movie with a U Certificate (akin to our G-rating) and said its scares would leave no lasting effects on kids. This proved to be the film the BBFC has received the most complaints about in the 30+ years since its release. It’s a marvel of independent film in general, much less animation. It’s beautiful to look at, and some of the imperfections of the movie, from sheer lack of time and money, add to its strange allure. It’s a movie I was very pleased to have gotten the chance to discover and I highly recommend you do the same.