'Watership Down' Is a World of Rabbits in Darkness

Like all great films based on great literature, Watership Down does a fine job of not replacing, but rather complementing the source material.

Watership Down

Director: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (Uncredited)
Cast: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Harry Andrews, Zero Mostel
Length: 101 minutes
Studio: Nepenthe Productions
Year: 1978
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: PG
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2015-02-24

Watership Down tells the tale of a very dark journey. Although this is an animated film featuring cute rabbits as the main characters, this is far from a children’s movie, and considering the violence and horror to be found in this film, it is rather surprising that the MPAA passed it with a PG rating. This is not your standard Disney fare, but rather a terrifying and bloody action/adventure movie more akin to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings than Bambi. If the original poster featuring a rabbit strangling to death on a trap isn’t enough to warn people “Don’t bring your kids!” I’m not sure what would have been sufficient.

The extras on the 2015 Criterion Collection DVD release prove that the making of the film Watership Down (1978), though certainly a labor of love, was in itself a dark journey. Producer and writer Martin Rosen, an American, fell deeply in love with the brilliant novel Watership Down (1972) and set about making the film version in England. With little support from the genius author of the novel, Richard Adams, Rosen brought together an amazing team of background artists and animators, flew over and filmed the very grounds that the story takes place on (and in). When the veteran star director John Hubley was hired, everything seemed to be blessed for the crew… until Hubley died on the job. This left Rosen, who had never directed before, to take the helm.

Magically, the experiment was a success. The unenviable task of “condensing” Adams’ incredible novel (it must be read to be believed) into something that would fit into a 101 minute motion picture is somehow managed skillfully by Rosen. Purists will certainly point out all that had to be excised from the story to adapt it into a motion picture. That said, this is a much more accurate adaptation than we get from most films with literary bases.

This story of Fiver (Richard Briers), the sensitive psychic runt of his litter, comes to life as his precognitive nightmares cause his brother Hazel (John Hurt) to lead an exodus from their warren to seek (literally) greener pastures. The truth behind Fiver’s visions proves to be as deadly as he fears, and the road that the running rabbits take is far from simple or easy. Facing predators, dangerous terrain, treachery, and the interference (and guns) of men, the Rabbits have it bad enough. But when the main villain, a monstrous and warlike warren leader named General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) presents himself, the story takes an even darker turn.

Hubley’s contributions are mostly seen in the opening, in which the mythology of the Lapine culture is laid out. This surreal sequence is at once minimalist (most of it takes place over a white background) and complex (the animals seen in this fable are ornate, tribal and other-worldly) as it introduces the deity Frith, the Black Rabbit (the embodiment of death who acts as both friend and foe) and the rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah (the prince with a thousand enemies).

Rosen’s Watership Down is a treat for the eyes. The painted backgrounds are lush and captivating, showing an incredible use of light and shadow. The rabbits themselves are realistic, modeled not upon humans (like Bugs Bunny or Roger Rabbit, for example), but live rabbits brought into the studio for copying. Sure they speak in human voices here, but this is only for the audience’s benefit. It is made clear that each creature has its own language and dialect and not every animal communicates the same. The natural movements of the characters benefit the realism of the overall work. When things get dark, the characterizations stay the same, but the backgrounds turn to a much more jagged and terrifying bleakness.

Dark, this film most certainly is, but Watership Down is hardly dark for darkness' sake. Rosen works hard to keep the voice of Adams as this film progresses through the tale. In place of much of the folklore that Adams created, Rosen inserts more graphic visions of Fiver and other surreal sequences. To an extent, this substitution is to the detriment (though not quite “downfall”) of this fine film. In some cases, plot points fizzle or are forgotten in favor of the main story. In others, comic relief is used to fill the gaps in an otherwise scary story.

To this end the gull Kehaar, who is treated as a capable foreigner in the novel, becomes a more comic character as voiced by Zero Mostel (in his final film appearance). That said, Rosen is careful never to allow Kehaar to cross the line between comedy and buffoonery. Similarly, the Art Garfunkel song “Bright Eyes” may seem, at first glance, to be somehow shoehorned into the plot to grant a hit song and, perhaps, appeal to a wider audience. However, this song is used sparingly in a strange fade-in/ fade-out way to accentuate one of Fiver’s most grueling quests. Noting that the lyrics are far from jovial (and are, in fact, about death), one can understand the choice, especially during this part of the film.

This Criterion Collection release is worthy of the film Watership Down and the name “Criterion” in most ways. With a film historian commentary, trailer, and documentaries (old and new) to back up this excellent film, one can truly say that the disc is worth owning. The recollections of the animators (from a 2005 documentary) are almost as engaging as the new 2014 interview with Rosen himself, during which he outlines the dark journey he endured to make this unique and engaging movie.

That said, if ever there was a film from Criterion that deserved an international audience, Watership Down is it. However, the audio track is the original English only. This could certainly be forgiven if there were subtitles in any language but English. There are none, not even Spanish, and for a 2015 DVD release from Criterion, this is a shocking omission.

Nevertheless, for American and British audiences, Watership Down still pleases. The film has never looked or sounded better than it does today thanks to Criterion. While the mostly wonderful film does suffer from a few omissions of its own, the tale is beautifully and completely told with an enticing beginning, exciting middle and satisfying end. Like all great films based on great literature, Watership Down does a fine job of not replacing, but rather complementing the source material and inviting its viewers to read (or re-read) the novel. Whether seeing the movie, reading the book or both, you will not regret the experience.

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