Was Watership Down for kids or adults? On one hand, it has some terrifying and bloody scenes of hallucinogenic death, some grimly realistic scenes of violence and voice acting from respected thesps. On the other, it’s about the adventures of a group of talking rabbits trying to establish a new warren after theirs is destroyed. The decision in the end rests with parents, but Watership Down will always be contentious – it is bloody, it has both supernatural scares and realistic ones (from the Black Rabbit of Inlé to Bigwig trapped in a snare) and much of the plot is given over to the need to reproduce.
But one thing is for sure – it was a staple of my childhood, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Richard Adams’ novel became one of my favourites of all time, and my brother and I would delight in reciting Kehaar’s lines (‘Vings good! Feathers clean!’, ‘Perfect landing!’), even if my five-year-old self would get a few things mixed up (‘You stoopid bunnies! You got no mates! Vere are mates? Vere are chips?’, ‘I soar! I glide! I settle…’). A few things made me feel nervous, but that only added layers to the intrigue, and I’m convinced that my childhood would be a worse place without this film.
The scrawny young rabbit Fiver has visions. He sees the future, though nobody but his brother Hazel believes him. Hazel is a natural leader, though, and when the chief rabbit refuses to abandon the warren, he takes a small faction to find somewhere new to live. After an abortive attempt to live with rabbits who live peaceful lives – as long as they don’t mind some of their number occasionally getting snared by the farmer – they find a great spot at the top of a hill. However, they have to find some does – and with help from a gull they nursed back to help, they find that there are some at a nearby farm. Hazel gets shot and seriously injured in the attempt to free them, though, and even then they need more to survive – so turn their eyes to another warren nearby, Efrafa, ruled with an iron fist by the formidable General Woundwort. The toughest of the rabbits, Bigwig, infiltrates the warren, but this only earns the wrath of Woundwort. So the rabbits prepare to defend themselves - with a trick or two, and a dog loose in the woods.
The film is incredibly quotable, and brings from the book an incredible mythology, one of the best in fiction. The rabbits have their own belief system, their own gods and superstitions, and their vocabulary is peppered with idiosyncratic words. They even suffix names with honorifics. Adams pitched these just right, so that they are believable as an alternate vocabulary without being cheesy, and it creates a brilliant exotic world within the familiar.
While it shows its age, being animated in 1978 by a team assembled for the project by director Michael Rosen rather than an established studio, it has an aesthetic that is almost inimitable. The animals are largely drawn with as much realism as possible, and it is great to see how the characteristic movements of rabbits and birds are captured in simple animation. While it will be nice to see Watership Down animated anew (not cheaply, like the TV series), I doubt it will be as visually iconic, even if Animal Logic really do go ahead with the project, instead of mucking about with projects centred on Walking with Dinosaurs and Lego…Another crack at the story will be great, but this is a visual statement that will endure forever.
The acting is also excellent, a snapshot of 1970s Britain, with the twilight of very posh Englishmen having great respect as serious actors and yet with diversity and strong female roles also represented. I might not like prophecies as plot devices, but having a mystic makes for great creepy lines. The music, of course, is iconic, with ‘Bright Eyes’ an enduring classic. Indeed, Watership Down has been influential on music ever since, and pops up in all sorts of places – from Paul McCartney to …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, musicians have enjoyed making references to Adams’ work; Slipknot referred to the film on ‘Killers are Quiet’ and Skrillex named his label after the Owsla. And it’s not just musicians: Stephen King has characters reading the book, and references have even popped up in materials in the extended Gundam universe.
An enduring classic, I will not hear anything against it. It takes its concept seriously and transcends ideas of cute bunnies, demanding to be taken seriously even if it means traumatising a few kids. Beautiful and strange, it is very likely the best piece of British animation ever made and essential viewing for any animation fan. Shame Plague Dogs didn’t live up to it - at least commercially.