On that note, I bring a review of a film that was a milestone in my movie-viewing…
When neurotic visionary Fiver (Richard Briers) tells his brother Hazel (John Hurt) that something bad is going to happen to their warren, a small group of rabbits – including Hazel, brutish Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), and clever Blackberry (Simon Cadell) – set out on a quest for a new home. In their adventures, they encounter dangerous predators, other warrens with strangely-acting rabbits, and ultimately a warren run with fascist-type discipline by General Woundwort (Ralph Richardson).
With my initial viewing around age 10, Watership Down was the first film to show me that animation can be more than just slapstick cartoons or Disney fare (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things). My young mind knew I was experiencing something on a whole new level as I watched Hazel lead his (often doubting) followers through dangerous passages on the quest for a place to call home.
Speaking of Hazel, writer/director Martin Rosen gives this two-dimensional, animated rabbit more complexity than many living, breathing, human characters in motion pictures. In the face of danger and the threat of destruction, Hazel rises to the occasion: Bigwig may have the muscle, and Fiver may have the vision, but it’s Hazel who becomes the group’s de facto leader. He’s like a cotton-tailed Moses, struggling to lead his people to a promised land.
And much like Moses’ The Ten Commandments, it can be argued that Watership Down is an epic story in its own right. From the exodus taken by the rabbits, to the ensemble cast, to the conflicts and obstacles they face on their way to their destination, the film is a sprawling journey – one that culminates in a confrontation with a seemingly unbeatable foe (General Woundwort, one of the most underrated villains in movie history).
Another biblical aspect of Watership Down is its use of spirituality. Faith plays a significant role in the film. Starting with the prelude showing how rabbits were created by their god Frith, the rabbits’ devotion to Him is woven into their dialogue and decisions – all the way up to the heart-pounding climax where Hazel pleads with Frith to save his people from Woundwort’s army.
A couple nits: The character of the bird Kehaar (Zero Mostel), while necessary to the story, serves up comic relief that largely falls flat – and in a German-accented voice that quickly gets old. Also, the animation is a bit iffy at times: There’s frequent choppiness when the rabbits are in action, and items that will soon come into play are sometimes colored more obviously – making these scenes feel a bit Hanna/Barbera-esque.
Watership Down is an amazing film that’s hard to categorize. It’s a decidedly mature animated feature that’s alternately somber, exhilarating, quiet, scary, trippy, terrifying, violent, action-packed, and bittersweet. Revisit it if you haven’t seen it in a while; see it now if you’ve never had the experience.
(An open plea: While Warner Brothers did release a Region 1 (US) “Deluxe Edition” DVD of Watership Down in 2008, there’s a Region 4 “25th Anniversary Edition” from 2003 that has many more extras, including full-length director’s commentary by Rosen. If anyone knows where I can get a Region 1 or region-free version of this edition, please e-mail me and let me know.)
Is it suitable for your kids?It baffles me that, after more than 30 years, stores and libraries still file Watership Down in their Children’s or Family section simply because it features animated bunnies. Don’t be fooled – Watership Down is not for young children. It’s rated PG for a reason – well, several reasons: Rabbits are snatched by birds of prey, caught in snares, buried alive, engage in bloody fights, and shot by a farmer. (That being said, I would argue that Watership Down is a near-perfect film for the transition from childhood to adolescence.)
Will your FilmMother want to watch it?While Watership Down is a great film, be sure you inform her that it’s not about cute, fluffy bunnies playing in the meadow. It’s heavy, serious stuff – but it’s also a moving, engaging film.
* Director: Martin Rosen
* Screenwriter: Martin Rosen
* Stars: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Ralph Richardson, Roy Kinnear, Hannah Gordon
* MPAA Rating: PG
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