By Kim Hollis
April 29, 2003
From the goofy cartoon bunny of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we move on to his more realistic and thematically heavier brethren from the British film Watership Down. Based on a well-loved and best-selling novel by Richard Adams, the movie is a fairly faithful adaptation that bears shades of both Animal Farm and Walden.
As a child of ten, I loved all books and movies related to animals, and books like Adams’ Shardik, Plague Dogs, and Watership Down were particularly compelling because they were rarely sugar-coated and frequently were even a little bit scary. At that age, I tended to be surprisingly hypercritical of movies adapted from books. If they didn’t properly follow the plot or changed some of the characters’ attributes, it just didn’t sit well with my youthful sensibilities (in fact, classics such as Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory both suffered a bit because of this ideology). So it speaks volumes that Watership Down is a movie that I enjoyed revisiting again and again, watching with genuine pleasure and delight every time it aired on then-fledgling pay channel Home Box Office.
Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I decided to revisit Watership Down after some 20 years. It’s always a little depressing to realize that something you loved as a child is actually tripe, leaving you wishing it had remained a pleasant memory. Fortunately, while Watership Down might not be quite the classic that I remembered, it has aged well and is an enjoyable, if somewhat weighty diversion.
Oddly, despite the fact that I earlier mentioned Animal Farm and Walden as spiritual companions to the film, the movie Watership Down most evokes today is recent blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. And the main reason for this particular resonance is that in both films, the main characters walk…and walk…and walk. There are long, peaceful interludes that are mostly comprised of this extended wandering, and much like Fellowship of the Ring, these are interspersed with blunt and occasionally jarring scenes of conflict.
After the story begins, we become acquainted with a small, sensitive rabbit named Fiver, who also just happens to be a little bit clairvoyant. Fiver can sense that something very bad is coming to their meadow, and urges the rabbits of his warren to leave to seek out a safer homefront. The little bunny and his friend Hazel visit the head rabbit to warn him about the situation, but the elderly leader discounts Fiver’s fears as both crazed and insignificant (the old codger does get in a humorous little dig at Hazel, though: “I knew your mother well.”).
Denied by their chief and feeling dejected, the two friends plan to leave anyway. A small but motley band joins them, and though they encounter some resistance to their departure from the Owsla (a rabbit police force), a disgruntled captain named Bigwig defends the group and tags along on their journey. As the group leaves, we can see that Fiver’s intuition is correct - a sign beside their meadow marks the location as a construction zone for new residences.
On the way to finding perfect bunny utopia, our intrepid heroes encounter numerous obstacles. From dogs and cats to irritated farmers, owls and rats to the realization that they have no does, the rabbits are working against outrageous odds to achieve their goals. While the bulk of the conflict is of the ambivalent sort, natural enemies that real rabbits contend with every day, the real villain is one General Woundwort, the fascist dictator of a persecuted warren that bears plenty of similarities to Nazi Germany. Fortunately, they also befriend a wounded seagull named Kehaar, who assists them in their search for the perfect pasture.
Watership Down was released in 1978 and was created by the British production company Nepenthe Films Ltd. As such, the animation is not especially in the universally accepted “Disney” tradition, but still fluid and generally pleasing to the eye. All of the animals move very naturally and realistically, even to the point where it’s occasionally noticeable that the weaker rabbits drag their hind legs slightly. The backgrounds, while not overwhelmingly colorful or detailed, give the feel of a landscape painting. Director Martin Rosen definitely kept to the spirit of the book, and subsequently helmed another Richard Adams project, Plague Dogs, as a result.
The voice actors here are predominantly British, with the most recognizable name being John Hurt as Hazel. Some of the other notables include Richard Briers (a long-time British character actor) as Fiver, Michael Graham Cox (who was also the voice of Boromir in the 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings) as Bigwig, and Zero Mostel (in his final performance before his death) as Kehaar.
Adding to the atmospheric quality of the picture is the predominantly woodwind-themed score by Angela Morley (who also wrote the music for evening soap operas Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest). Even after more than 20 years, the music was like an old, gentle friend that had returned to reminisce with me.
On the downside, the film moves rather slowly despite being a relatively short 92 minutes long. It’s contemplative and deliberate rather than being full of action, which means it probably isn’t recommended for those with short attention spans. Also, Kehaar is more annoying than I remembered him being. He’s used for comic relief in a story where perhaps none is necessary, though Mostel ably voices the character. In such a short film, it’s difficult to really flesh out the different players, and Kehaar definitely suffers from this deficiency (though really, the rabbits aren’t really that much more deeply developed).
Also, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, the lapine, or “bunny talk,” might seem a little bit strange and confusing. The rabbits definitely have their own words for various objects – for example, an automobile becomes a hrududu, while foxes are hombas – and the special creation mythology that is somewhat briefly covered has a god named Frith and an Original Rabbit named El-ahrairah. For true aficionados of the story, the DVD does include an entire section devoted to this singular language.
Also included on the Warner Bros. DVD release is a documentary on author Richard Adams and the original theatrical trailer, which seems excessively long and reveals a lot about the film, but is still interesting in retrospect.
Overall, the film is a treasure from long ago that I truly enjoyed revisiting. Even though the movie is more serious and sometimes scarier than typical animated fare, it is certainly a movie that can be enjoyed by young and old alike, even affording the opportunity for some family discussion about human progress at the cost of nature. By today’s standards, it’s not a triumph of technical animation, but the story is unique, cerebral and serene, and a delight for animal-lovers.