I am of the opinion that the best fairy tales and fables we grow up with teach and horrify in equal measure. You don’t even need to look at the Brothers Grimm or Aesop for examples. Modern films such as The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Return To Oz, and The Neverending Story are amazing “family” films but, under the surface, they reveal a dark horror that crawls their way into our psyche long after we’ve become adults. They’ve certainly formed my view of the world, pessimist that I am. Predating all of these for me, however, was a film I never quite understood when I was a child, as is so often the case. It was only years later, after I was grown and felt the sting of the adult world, that I understood the road map that was laid out before me from a film as unassuming as one dealing with rabbits in the English countryside. Watership Down is, to me, a masterpiece of fable and unrelenting tension.
Going into particulars of the plot would spoil the effect it would have on the uninitiated, so I’ll refrain here. What I will say is, if you look at the posters, covers, etc. that are on bookshelves and movie racks, feeling that it’s merely a cutesy movie about bunnies, then, quite honestly, keep in that frame of mind. You will be in much the same position as the people who read the novel in 1972 and watched the film in 1977: stunned and awestruck. This film Trojan-Horses its way into your brain and stays there, making you feel the constant unease the characters feel as they flee their home to an uncertain future. Imagine if all you knew about The Dark Crystal was that it was made by Jim Henson and somehow Muppets were involved. Laying eyes on the Skeksis for the first time would give any young person trust issues.
The plot of Watership Down is a simple one: the rabbits of a warren in the fields of Sandleford fear for their lives and seek a new, better land. So far so basic, but it’s the sense of mood that sets it apart. The opening prologue detailing the rabbits’ place in the world wouldn’t seem out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro film. The vast countrysides seem torn right from the pages of Beatrix Potter. The mythology and Lapine language (created by author Richard Adams) evokes the storied histories created by Tolkien. It’s a beautiful movie that belies the air of danger that hangs in the air like a grey English sky. Each supposedly safe place the rabbits find is quickly torn from them and they’re left to fend off all manner of gnashing teeth and bloody claws.
Truly the moment that stands out is the apocalyptic vision that Fiver, the youngest rabbit, sees awaiting their safe warren. It’s a nightmarish moment that has etched itself into my mind and haunts me to this day. Again, not giving anything away, but you’ll definitely look twice at an empty lot that’s being zoned for a Starbucks. It happens early on and wastes no time in grabbing you by the neck and forcing you to see the cold reality of what the world can do.
I realize I’ve reviewed this movie without talking much about it. Honestly, it’s the kind of movie that one should go into knowing very little. I can see how modern audiences may not be as taken with the pace or the animation, but those are easy to come to terms with when you fall into the film’s spell. The film dances between realistic and expressionistic animation, oftentimes in the same scene. The characters are ones to cherish and love… and sometimes to fear and despise. The animation makes the rabbits, cats, dogs, and myriad of other creatures seem real. The movements of the cast feel like they’ve been rotoscoped, so genuine are their movements. It’s violent. It’s bloody. It doesn’t feel safe. It’s also a testament to what good, rich animated storytelling can do.
Watership Down is a movie of the kind they just don’t make anymore. It’s a multifaceted and unsafe story in ways most modern storytelling isn’t. Yes, it’s a family film, but it harkens to a time that treated young people with as much respect as adults. It’s an idea that seems to be lost on a lot of films nowadays. I consider a film like Pan’s Labyrinth to be a fantastic children’s movie that just so happens to be rated R. I look at the incinerator scene of Toy Story 3, the first eleven minutes of Up, or the body of work that LAIKA and Ghibli produce as a shift toward the viewpoint of seeing their audiences not as wallets with money but as people with intelligence. With curiosity. With empathy. With an understanding that the world may be a dark place oftentimes but, if we press ahead, we’ll use our time in the dark past to form our brighter future. To make us stronger, better people. And better animals in general.
Watership Down is available to view on Hulu Plus and will be released as part of the Criterion Collection on February 24th. It is the first hand-drawn animated film to enter the Collection.
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden