Life-and-death chases. Bloody traps. Shootings. Authoritarian torture and mutilation. Fallen comrades… Bunnies. It could only be Watership Down.
Released in an era of dark, speculative, adult animation (recall Ralph Bakshi’s brave Lord of the Rings in 1978 and René Laloux’ phantasmal Fantastic Planet in 1973), the film tracks the events and characters of Richard Adams 1972 novel fairly closely. The story follows the adventures of a handful of rabbits, who escape their warren in Sandelford just before it is violently destroyed by developers. Led by Hazel (voiced by none other than John Hurt) and his brother Fiver (Richard Briers), the band eludes the temptations of a dangerously domesticated “death warren,” fight rats in an abandoned cemetery, escapes cats and dogs at a local farm, and finally faces down the violent and terrifying regime of a militarized warren under the horrific authoritarian rule of General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). Eventually they survive to dig a new home on the high hills (or “downs”) of Hampshire, England.
Figure 1: The band of rabbits from Sandelford Warren stick together through some harrowing situations
There is so much going on in this adventure, it is impossible to convey it all, but its elements are transportive. The rabbits are imbued by Adams with a rich folk culture, replete with their own gods and trickster heroes. The plot hints at the exceptional psychic abilities of a handful of the rabbits, especially Fiver, who goes into chilling trance-like states that predict dark outcomes. The rabbits demonstrate loyalty and comradery in harrowing circumstances, including a terrifying sequence where the dig their tough-fighting comrade Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) out of a bloody snare.
Not your usual cartoon
The overall structure and style is deeply literary and director Martin Rosen (whose only other film credit was another Adams adaptation: the horrific Plague Dogs) is a on a singularly cerebral journey. Sequences include a scary side-trip to a warren managed by humans, who “farm” the animals there with terrible traps. The culture of the rabbits that live there, notably, has evolved to create a resigned sense of death (“the “Black Rabbit”). Their poetry conveys a tone of fatalism and morbidity that frightens our wild heroes, whose own folktales conversely celebrate trickery and survival.
Figure 2: The rich cosmology of the rabbits: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you… but first they must catch you.”
Similarly, the final showdown with the rabbits of Efrafa, a frightening Stalinist warren, run through ruthless logics of survival, requires guile, selflessness, and the power of the rabbits to reverse reassemble the chaotic chapters of their experiences into a strategy to overcome the impossible. This is a book on film, to be sure.
All of this makes Waterhsip Down an unusual cartoon in its own era, and ours. Certainly its violence and heavy thematics rule it out for really little ones. I saw it at age 11, however, and it was exciting and memorable and left me with no nightmares (unlike The Shining!). This is because the film sets an aspirational tone that, no matter how desperate, drives the viewer onward, rooting all the while for this brave band.
Figure 3: The terrifying General Woundwort still scares me
Visually, the film also seems unusual, even for its time. The animation is characterized by heavily-painted watercolor backdrops, panned to simulate motion, and overlain with low frame-rate, moving characters (technically: “limited animation”). This allows and encourages the viewer to luxuriate in the backgrounds, including long vistas of the English countryside, the claustrophobic confines of a crypt, and narrow dark tunnels of rabbit warrens. These images rest before the viewer’s eye, and the main characters hop through them, alive with motion in the midst of a very still landscape painting.
For Watership Down, this works extremely well. The film-makers manage to achieve a kind of “natural history”, in a sense, with languid brooks providing a backdrop for kingfishers, insects, and other forms of life to dart across, providing a real sense of place. If anything, it reminds me of the installations in science museums where the animals and plants take the foreground with meticulously painted background painting covering the walls beyond. This creates a terrific illusion, but one that requires a kind of creative suspension of disbelief.
Figure 4: The landscapes of Hampshire are lovingly styled through “limited animation”
It is unclear how a contemporary 12-year old might respond to such a style, however. It might seem a little cheap, inanimate, or dark, I’d imagine, especially if they have grown more accustomed to the frenetic, restless landscapes of contemporary animation. The imagery may require some patience from the young viewer, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The tone of the film is also wholly unlike anything in contemporary, mainstream, animated cinema (excluding recent works like The Secret of Kells and all kinds of anime). The earnestness of the production is entirely devoid of comic subplots or sly, adult-focused, double-entendre. The character of Kehaar, a helpful, foreign migratory, gull, voiced by Zero Mostel (of all people?) has a few funny light sequences, including a hard landing pratfall and some comic misunderstanding, but doesn’t compare to the new generation style of Disney comic tone, established in Aladdin and recapitulated in every damn Panda movie. Laughs in Watership Down are few and far between, and only allow a moment’s respite from the life-or-death chases and vicious fights. No, this is serious stuff. I find that refreshing, and I’d hope so would any engaged young person.
Masculinity, Rabbits, and Virgil
One thing sticks out as a father, however, rather more obviously than when I was a son: all the bunnies (with a very few exceptions) are boys. This is a boy’s story.
This is not to say that there isn’t a strong female character. Hyzenthlay (Hannah Gordon) is a forthright fighter who resists the authoritarian regime of Efrafa, becoming a kind of bold dissident, who then helps her people escape to freedom with the help of our merry band. That’s a good, consequential role, though it is brief. It is also heavily outweighed by the narrative motivation: the hero rabbits’ need to liberate Efrafa to obtain mates. The story is not solely male, in short, but it is most certainly, and a problematically, masculinist.
This is, of course, because Adams’ adventure is based on classic hero myth cycle, or more accurately, its late adaptation by writers like Virgil. Consider Aeneas, after all, who leaves his tragically fallen city of Troy, traverses the dangers and temptations of the seascape with his crew, and emerges as a hero, founding a new city on a hill (or really seven hills, but who’s counting). Virgil’s nationalist masculinist life messages are clear: be crafty, fight when you have to, remain loyal at all costs, and champion the weak. Insert rabbits and you get Watership Down, for better or for worse. It’s a classical story defining and advancing a kind of moral model of masculinity.
Figure 5: Hazel, Holly, Bigwig.. Aeneas, Achaemenides, Achates
This is not to say it is not a movie for women and girls, indeed for everyone; I absolutely think it is. I think the powerful message about nature, struggle, and selflessness has no gender, and any kid can empathize with the hard-bitten heroes from Sandleford warren. I would note, moreover that the film-makers seem to have gone to pains to minimize many of the sex-specific ruminations that characterize Adams’ novel, including the stark division of labor in the warren, and questions of reproduction and fertility. That might have been a wise decision, since it opens the interpretive landscape to a more diverse audience.
But, this all means that it falls to me as a parent to use this film as a kind of springboard for a discussion about being the right kind of person, thinking about human impact on the land, and – in my case – what it means to be a good man. The film doesn’t just support such a conversation. In its stark and confrontational style, tone, and message, it seems to demand it. Which is all to the good.
Chances that Alexander will enjoy this film: Good/Very Good
NOTE: This is my second posting for a film ending in death of the protagonist. I’ll lay off that theme for a while!
I adore this book, which is a strange thing to say about a novel whose reminiscences live on in my mind as green idylls and bloody, bloody survival. For all of its watercolors, I consumed it as an adult, and it was adult themes I took from it… rabbits playing heroes, villains, and everyman characters simply allow us to better see ourselves and our world. I’ll add my voice to yours, for adults, parents and teens to watch, and to really chew on this dense and compelling tale.
Yes, I didn’t get to the book until I was 30 or so and I was blown away. The movie is of course a loyal simplification. What is most missing, I feel, are the chapters dedicated to the rabbit’s own folks tales: stories of El-ahrairah. That and the richness of the invented vocabulary. Richard Adams was the Tolkien of bunnies.