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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.

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  1. mark says:

    One of my favorite films growing up.

  2. Christine says:

    Thank you for this beautiful review of the movie of one of my favorite novels of all time…I watched it long ago and need to re-watch.

  3. ian73 says:

    First film I ever saw at the cinema at the age of 6. Think parents not realise how violent it was! Think I was too young to take in what I was seeing. Still a great & sad film. Disney wouldn’t make it like that that’s for sure.

  4. Patrick A. Barrett says:

    Yeah the ’70s were a pretty great time for a child growing up with depression and anxiety issues when it came to animated films.  We had Watership Down, Fantastic Planet, Bakshi’s Wizards and Lord of the Rings, The Secret of Nimh, and Plague Dogs which I didn’t find until an adult.  Somehow it still brought back that unsettling feeling of being a small, fragile piece of flesh in a dark world filled with jagged snags when I watched it in my early 40s.  
    I’m not saying these films shouldn’t have been made; they’re just reflections of a Vietnam and Watergate era when even the post-modernist film makers were forced to question the peace and love hippy vibe we were all waking up from.  Traditional films like Little Big Man weren’t much help either when it came to confronting the idea that the small get crushed under “the terrible burden of destiny.” 
    Still, I’m grateful to these films now because they taught me to constantly question authority as I negotiate the current geo-political minefield we’re all faced with today, and I’m definitely aware that my best long-term strategy is to keep an eye out for the next safe burrow no matter how comfortable I find my current abode.
    I watched all of these films with my own child over the course of his younger years starting when he was around seven.  The only difference was my wife and I were there to debrief him afterward as he digested their more unsettling content. I’m not certain my parents were even aware that these films were so overwhelming despite the fact that they watched some of them with me.

  5. Ian73 says:

    First film I ever saw at the cinema at the age of 6, don’t think my parents realised how violent it was! Survived it though & it’s now a classic for us Brits. 

  6. Tracy Engwirda says:

    I hope when you were going through Bakshi’s work you came across Fire and Ice, a film he did in collaboration with Frank Frazetta.  Another questionable ratings classification [PG]…
    But yes, I read Watership Down as a pre-teen then saw the film, and even so I found the visualisation of the violence was confronting.

  7. Cynthia says:

    If you liked Watership Down try Rock n Rule or Animalympic. Both from the early 80s

  8. Becky says:

    I love this film and the book. I read the book in first school, used to take it on the coach on school trips. It was my mums copy but now it’s mine, I got her a new one as I’m so attached to my copy. I’ve read it many times since! I watched the film as a child and although I remember being frightened at points it didn’t terrify me too much. I have it on DVD, I love the animation and dream like feel to it. Its a book and a film I can’t wait to share with my little girl. 

  9. Fartbooty says:

    Y’all gotta do Pom Poko! Dat shit cray z 

  10. Erin says:

    I saw Watership Down at the tender age of 7 when it was released in the theaters. It left a lifelong impression on me – because if you think it has a strong impact on a kid at home on a tv, let me tell you on a big screen in a darkened theater it is earth-shattering, but in the best possible way. I wasn’t frightened by it, I was fascinated by it. I read the book immediately and have read it about every two or three years since. It is, hands down, my favorite book in all the world. It is children’s literature, or the very best kind, for the story is of valuing difference, teamwork, trust, bravery and hard work, coupled with lies, dissension and totalitarianism. In short, it is about life and myth, with no sanitizing. Both the book and the film are indeed quite unlike anything else and I have valued them for most of my life. Thank you for this lovely review.

  11. TFGeekGirl says:

    I’ve only seen it when I was a kid and I was amazed by it.  I can’t remember much, though, and I’m sure I’d understand it more now than I did back then.  As far as kids watching it, I watched a lot of movies and TV shows when I was a kid that weren’t really appropriate. 

  12. Kate M. says:

    I love the alternative animation being discussed! Even as kid, I still enjoyed this movie and its mythos connected to it. Personally, Felidae was much more disturbing than that. I saw that particular German animated film in my teens. And I still find it hard to watch now. Felidae is like The Secret of NIMH on steroids!

  13. Michael says:

    It’s not too intense for children.  I saw it as a child and suffered no ill effects other than being exposed to some more mature ideas earlier in life. Children are far more resilient and far more sophisticated than they are given credit for.    It’s good for children to be introduced to these themes and this is a very artful way to do it. 

  14. Bryan says:

    I’m bad at comments!

  15. Bryan says:


  16. Amanda says:

    I loved the movie so much growing up.  I read the book when I was in high school and again in college.  Then read the sequel.  Still love it.  Part of the reason I always loved rabbits.  It’s a great story.

  17. Drea Walker-Skye says:

    Try “the last unicorn” based on a Peter Beagle tale.  Like Watership and NIMH, its call it children’s animation.

  18. Higuide says:

    my husky is a better villain, first he sees an open field then look away then back from nowhere last thing he see is his ice blues then back row of his teeth

  19. Adele says:

    Im originally from the UK and my mum knew about the film and taped it off the telly in 82 (I was born in 81) because she thought it was a great film that I should be able to see when I was growing up. I started watching it from the age of 5 and rewatched it over and over again, not knowing what is was about until I gradually got older. I am one of the few who was never disturbed by it and just saw it as a wonderful film. Mind you, in the UK we had a lot of odd and creepy kids shows in the 80s and my mum took me to see Total Recall as a kid, so I guess I wasnt fazed much by the violence in Watership Down.Im really glad to hear you have discovered it and written an article about it so other US film fans can go check it out. Try not to tear up during Bright Eyes, I dare ya! I have not gone one viewing without sheding a tear. My favourite animated film.

  20. Orionsangel says:

    When I recently watched this movie again as an adult. I understood it much better, but there was also a nostalgic gloom and doom feel about it. The film is very timely both in look and sound. It brought me back to scary times in my childhood. It definitely leaves a lasting impression on you. Especially if you saw it as a kid.

  21. Orionsangel says:

    You should also do Bakshi films. Lord of the Rings, American Pop.

  22. Orionsangel says:

    I saw Watership Down in school. I was in 2nd grade. Which is crazy to think back now. Today they’d never show a movie this violent to children.

  23. Orionsangel says:

    Next you gotta do the animated film, HEAVY METAL. Did you know it’s the first scifi/fantasy movie to use rock/heavy metal music for the soundtrack? The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was basically paying tribute to it.

  24. Collin says:

    I saw this in the theater when I was 5.  It freaked me out.  I revisited it when I was 19 to try and erase the nightmares, but it still freaked me out.  I tried again at about 35, and guess what?  It still freaked me out!  THIS MOVIE IS SO DAMN FREAKY!!!

  25. Hannah says:

    that movie is why rabbits still freak me out

  26. kaspi says:

    Try to find Plague Dogs. Another Richard Adams’ story done by the same people who did Watership Down. Another beautiful surreal film that would be a challenge to mainstream audiences.

    • Melissa says:

      I’d also recommend Plague Dogs, though the original cut as it was unnecessarily trimmed down (last time I checked, the edited version is the only version available for DVD purchase in the US). The books are really wonderful as well.

  27. Amalthea says:

    Another one of these type of movies was based off the book “the Plague Dogs”  You need to review that one too!

    • ChibiOkamiko says:

      That one is so hard for me to watch. It made me cry a lot. Watership Down, however, I borrowed from the library almost constantly as a child.