Watership Down

watership-downBy Tab Olsen

“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.”

Watership Down (1978, PG, 92 min) is a British-produced animated feature based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel by the same name. The title refers to Watership Down, a low-lying hill in Hampshire, England, near the area where Adams grew up. Watership Down is a combination fairy tale, survival adventure, and allegory of the human condition, centering on a band of refugee rabbits seeking a safe, new home in the English countryside after fleeing their doomed warren (which was earmarked for real estate development).

Now fans of Watership Down can finally enjoy an HD transfer of the feature film. It was released on February 24, 2015, as part of The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection consists of “important classic and contemporary films” in “editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” With this passion project, screenwriter-producer-director Martin Rosen brilliantly achieved what was thought difficult, if not impossible: a faithful big-screen adaptation of Adams’s classic dystopian novel.

Watership Down explores major themes of bravery, tyranny, and freedom as well as social roles, culture and spirituality. The story starts out with a trickster creation myth, and the theology is reflective of a species at the mercy of a world full of predators. The main characters are realistically drawn rabbits, all convincingly differentiated from each other. This is definitely no fluffy Easter Bunny cartoon! The movie shows battles among rabbits as well as with other animals and humans that result in bloodshed, serious injury, and the occasional fatality in which a rabbit dies onscreen. One rabbit gets caught in a trap and there is also a recurring character known as the Black Rabbit of Death.

Watership Down’s original author, Richard Adams, was influenced by Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travels, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well as The Private Life of the Rabbit by British naturalist Ronald Lockley, with its eye-opening accounts of the community life of wild rabbits. We have rabbits in our yard, and sometimes when I sit and observe them my mind will wander into imagining what it’s like to live in an underground burrow, and wondering what they think when we toss salad scraps out for them. Both of these concepts are addressed in the movie. The rabbits in Watership Down even have their own traditions and language!

The film’s elegant voice work is performed by a notable cast of English actors – John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Richard Briers, and Denholm Elliott – who treat their characters with as much gravity as they would a Shakespearean play. Zero Mostel, in his final performance, is delightfully gruff and blustery as the seagull Kehaar adding a bit of comic relief. Complementing the drama is a musical score that subtly and effectively accentuates the emotional twists and turns of the story.

For older kids, teens and adults, Watership Down has plenty of drama, suspense and action. With the naturalistic hand-drawn animation, expressionistic touches, and pastoral watercolor backgrounds, it’s almost like watching a painting come to life. However, the idyllic landscape also can be quite treacherous. (Imagine a darker version of Beatrix Potter.) But it’s a refreshing change of pace from the cutesy characters, glitzy musical numbers, and merchandisable sidekicks of Disney animated movies.

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