Watership Down

Watership Down. Nepenthe Productions 1978.

Before watching the movie:

If there is one thing I know about this movie and book, it’s that they traumatized a lot of children. I know there are rabbits, and I think they go to war, and the horrors of that war are not shied away from. I have to confess that with the sum of that information, I always pictured rabbits holding rifles on a battleship or submarine. When I first heard the title, I pictured an airship crashing, which was especially silly because an airship is not a watership. But anyway, nobody seems to want to discuss what it is aside from “cute rabbits experiencing The Horrors” so I don’t have any idea what to expect.

That poster does look pretty bleak and existential though. I have strong Ralph Bakshi movie vibes from that design, but it might just be a late 70s aesthetic.

After watching the movie:

In a rabbit warren in the English countryside, Fiver often has visions of the future, and he now foresees a holocaust in their meadow, begging his brother Hazel to warn the chief of the warren and plead for an evacuation. Not only does the chief refuse to listen, but also orders the captain of the warren’s Owsla police to prevent anyone from leaving. With the help of one Owsla member, Bigwig, who trusts Hazel, a small group of rabbits do leave the warren, unaware of the impending contruction of a residential development planned in their territory. On their journey looking for a new home, they get invited to join an eerily tight-lipped warren on a farm where the man leaves vegetables out for them, which turns out to be the bait to keep his snares filled. At another farm they find a hutch full of contented captive rabbits, but are chased away by the dog and cat. Finally, they arrive at the home Fiver had visions of reaching, a hill where they will be safe and have all they need, and their attention can turn to the sustainability of their new warren, as they have no does to birth new generations. They might recruit to their number from massive, overpopulated nearby warren called Efrafa. But while many of the rabbits in Efrafa would join them if they could, it’s a vicious totalitarian organization under General Woundwort, whose Owsla officers dictate the lives of the rabbits under their rule, and Woundwort will not suffer any defections. Especially with a failed attempt to liberate the hutched rabbits, Hazel feels there is no alternative for their warren’s survival but a dangerous mission to draw escapees from Efrafa.

This story is very deeply concerned with building the world of what rabbit society would be like in the modern world. We begin with a telling of the creation myth according to rabbits, the key takeaway being that rabbits have to be fast and clever because everything else in the world is trying to kill them. There’s a lot of time, even in the book, taken to showing how rabbits understand the humans. Characters argue over whether humans hate rabbits or just don’t care about them. We get a few glimpses at the vocabulary of their language, and while they and Kehaar are both shown speaking English, Kehaar speaks a broken English with a Slavic accent and there seems to be a language barrier, and it’s unclear if this is because they’re different species or because Kehaar is from that far away. And yes, there is a lot of pretty brutal and distressing rabbit violence, mostly rabbit-on-rabbit. You never think about a rabbit having claws or using its teeth for more than biting off bits of vegetables, but that’s all the equipment they have for fighting, and they make extensive use of it.

The art style, especially the principal animation, is technically competent. The backgrounds seem to be colored pencil renditions of specific places in the countryside and they’re as pretty as the actual landscape is, so they’re nice to look at but I’m not terribly impressed from a creative standpoint. The animation is trying to be less cartoonish than the typical Disney style, and in that it succeeds, but in the process makes it very difficult to tell the characters apart. The only good guy rabbit character (not deformed to show how evil they are) I was ever sure who it was when they were on screen was Bigwig, because he has an extra moppish tuft of contrasting-colored hair on his head. Everyone else was just another rabbit. The voice acting was also not terribly interesting, almost exclusively made up of classically trained 70s British actors playing it straight. It picked up my engagement so much when Kehaar arrived and was played by Zero Mostel in full curmudgeon. There are times when the animation gets more interesting, and it’s usually mythological or spiritual. The sequence where Hazel gets shot and is wandering alone close to death is visually striking, with a lot of colored pencil animation effects, but it stops the story for way too long so that a kind of boring Art Garfunkel song can play in the entirety over it.

I may have been aware in the past that a “down” is a kind of hill or another name for the landscape feature, but it never occurred to me the word was being used in that way until I noticed the characters referring to a place as “the down”. Since a small boat factors into the escape from Efrafa, I assumed that that was why the characters name their new home “Watership Down”, but it turns out it’s just the name of a hill in Hampshire. It’s a dramatic-sounding name and a dramatic story, but in reality the name is the most mundane part of it.

This movie was done very well in a lot of different ways, but it doesn’t always add up to an engaging movie. I’m fascinated by the rabbit society and perspective, but it’s probably even deeper in the book, where if I can’t tell the difference between the characters, it’s a problem with what I’m bringing to it. The story is pretty well-done, but it’s not always conveyed effectively here. Regardless, the disturbing brutality of it suggests that it should maybe be reserved for older children, especially since it requires a more mature attention span that can follow a story that’s mostly pretty low key for the first half. I might read the book, but I’m not sure I’ll bother coming back to the movie, which is a shame because there’s clearly a lot of talent being squandered here.


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