December 2, 2010

Watership Down (1978)

APOLOGIES ALL AROUND for the uneven frequency of my reviews lately. Hopefully I can get several fresh reviews posted before 2010 is history.

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.

Carrots?! Where??!!

Watership Down
* 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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Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

This was one that showed me that not all animation is cute nor does it automatically gaurantee a happy ending for all. I was used to Disney killing off characters but that happened early on. To worry about characters throughout a movie was unsettling in the least. And the fact that not all bunnies were cute and cuddly has made me wonder since if I got bunnies all wrong and if I can trust them.

I have a recommend for you - Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I would be interested in young Dash's opinion of that adventure.

Kathy B. said...

Disney had a dark side, didn't he?

James (SeattleDad) said...

I read the book recently and loved it. Thanks for the review, sounds like I will have to wait to watch this one with Lukas.

Budd said...

I loved this movie growing up. I read the book as a child and have read it twice since and it is pretty faithful to the book. My 9 year old has also read the book and watched the movie.

StuartOhQueue said...

I still haven't seen this film. I loved the book when I was younger, I need to check this out for sure. I find it amusing that "High Plains Drifter" is listed in your related suggestions section for this film.

Neil Dunsmore said...

It's good to know you're one of the few protective parents in the world who actually gets that this isn't a kid's film. Anyway, I find your reviews very interesting to read. While I don't always agree (Mulan is one of my favorite Disney movies of all time) I can at least try to understand your point of view. Also, one last point, and I hope this doesn't count as spam: Are you going to review Tangled? I'd really like to see that. (Also highly recommend seeing said film... why hasn't Roger Ebert reviewed it yet?)

FilmFather said...

Cal - it's funny you mention The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; I TiVo'd it the other week from TCM to see if it would be suitable for Dash to watch. While I do think he'd eat up the sequences featuring Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion creatures, there were loooong spots of dialogue between them, making me wonder if he'd have the attention span to sit through them to get to the good stuff.

Kathy - Disney did indeed have a dark side in many of his films. Though to be clear, Watership Down was not a Disney release.

James - I need to revisit the book; honestly, I don't know if I ever finished it. And yes, wait till Lukas is a bit older before sharing this film with him (but make sure you do).

Budd - Thanks for stopping by and chiming in. I'm impressed that your 9-year-old has experienced the book and the film!

Stu - Definitely put WD on your to-watch list for the near future. As far as the High Plains Drifter connection, I attribute it to the same labels I gave both films: "1970s" and "FilmFather Favorite."

Neil - Thanks to you as well for stopping by and offering the kind words you did. Regarding Tangled: I'd like to see it, but it's tough to convince Dash to see Disney movies that feature princesses. (I finally got him to watch Aladdin tonight after weeks of his resistance due to the Princess Jasmine factor.)

Jack Bradshaw said...

Watership Down (1978) (Cut# 1-2116)

Map Location: Pearland Junior High West, 2337 N Galveston Ave, Pearland, TX 77581
Name: Jack Bradshaw (15 year old)
Date: Sunday, October 23, 2016


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