BENJAMIN K. PAPLHAM | ENTERTAINMENT COLUMNIST
As a kid, I remember being absolutely terrified of this film. Disney likes to set the standard for what is or is not acceptable to inflict upon cute and fuzzy creatures—imprisonment and killing their parents seem to be the most common—but “Watership Down” raises it to an extreme level. For example, within the first minute of meeting the main characters, a vision of an oozing, bleeding field is splashed onto the screen against a backdrop of screeching violins and pounding timpani.
As an adult, this film isn’t quite the nightmare-inducing terror it once was, but it still ranks as one of the darkest animated films I’ve ever seen.
“Watership Down” (1978) is a 90-minute adaptation of Richard Adams’ best-selling novel, an Odyssey-like tale about a group of rabbits who flee the evils of humanity before land developers obliterate their warren. Led by Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and his little brother Fiver, the rabbits must traverse the British landscape and establish a new home, facing dogs, rivers and cult-ish rabbit dens along the way. As far as plots go, it may be simple, but it also is fairly logical. None of the events seem misplaced or randomly inserted, creating a nice cause-and-effect relationship that helps drive the rabbits’ journey on a religiously allegorical level. The film is also great at maintaining an emotional pace and creating new, imminent threats that keep the audience guessing at the ending.
The one aspect “Watership Down” waters down (please tell me somebody laughed at that pun) is the character development. Because the film is focused on the artistic expression of an epic adventure, the characters are reduced to certain roles. Hazel is the shrewd leader, Fiver is the eccentric prophet, Bigwig is the fearless warrior, Dandelion is the technician, and so on for every rabbit. It could be argued that these roles help define the allegory, but on the other hand it would be nice to see Fiver do something other than convulse on the ground spurting apocalyptic visions.
While the animation style itself reminds me of “The Secret of NIMH” (1982) or “The Last Unicorn” (1982), “Watership Down” separates itself from other animated features with its visual presentation. It’s quite dark, mysterious and borderline sadistic. The film isn’t afraid to show blood—and sometimes in prodigious amounts. It is especially fond of creeping shadows and silhouettes that entrap the poor rabbits in a sinister and unforgiving environment. Yet the film can also surprise with momentary scenes of bright and cheerful landscapes.
One last random thought that doesn’t fit anywhere else in this article: “Watership Down” has one of my favorite original movie songs of all time, animated or live-action. If you don’t feel like watching the film, then at least listen to the song on YouTube. It’s called “Bright Eyes” and sung by Art Garfunkel, and it’s one of the most beautifully emotional songs ever created.
“Watership Down” is currently available on Hulu as well as at the Mulva Library per request, though only in videocassette form.