94 – Watership Down:
So now we get to our first animated film on the list. I was born in the 90s, so of course I grew up with Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks animation – not to mention a chock of imitators. That particular period was known as the Renaissance Age of Animation, which I’ll go into more when I get to my numerous Disney entries. But from the period when Walt Disney died to when Don Bluth started his own studio, animated films that could really capture the public’s love were few and far between. Animation has experienced a lot of the same genre snobbery as comedy and fantasy – but a different sort. Animation is often looked down on as an inferior form of entertainment. One only has to look at the condescending attitudes from a lot of people when Beauty & the Beast was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The director of The Brave Little Toaster was outright told that the film was the best one shown at the Sundance Festival, but judges were afraid of being mocked if they gave awards to a cartoon. And if the animated film has animals as its protagonists? Well you’re about to find out the reason many generations of children have come to fear rabbits.
Watership Down began humbly as a few stories that British author Richard Adams told his daughters on long car journeys. The stories were about the rabbits of the countryside, and their adventures. Adams ended up creating an entire history, mythology and folklore for the animals, and his daughters loved the stories so much they insisted he write them down. The eventual novel was rejected by a few publishers, but went on to win several awards once it was picked up. An anthology sequel followed it twenty five years later, further detailing the history of the rabbits’ society. Beloved by the public, it received a TV series in the 90s, a stage play in 2006 and even a role playing game called Bunnies & Burrows. But the most famous – or should I say infamous – adaptation of the book is the 1978 British animated film.
The film opens with a narration by veteran Shakespeare actor Michael Hordern – showing us the rabbits’ version of their creation myth. The great god Frith created all animals equal. But the rabbits’ appetite grew out of control and nearly led to mass starvation. In retaliation, Frith granted other animals – foxes, dogs, cats, hawks etc. – with gifts to prey on the rabbits. As a compromise, Frith blessed the rabbits with strong back legs to outrun their enemies. This sequence is done in the style of Aborigine art, which really helps with the introduction to the rabbits’ culture. Already the film is off to a great start, helped by Hordern’s powerful voice. He ends the creation myth with my favourite line:
“All the world will be your enemy…and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you…”
The art style then shifts as the story begins. Now we get some very soft watercolour backdrops to introduce us to our setting. Certainly it’s not as lavish and eye-catching as some of the fancier Disney films. However it has a very English feel to it, and it suits the tone of the movie perfectly. Likewise all the animals move very well. Some fans have noted that the various locations in the movie are near-perfect recreations of the maps and diagrams in the original book. We’re introduced to one rabbit Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and his runty little brother Fiver. In the process we also find out that rabbits have something of a hierarchy; the Owsla of the warren is pretty much their military. The strong rabbits get to be in the Owsla and they get all the privileges. Hazel in particular dislikes this kind of thinking, and muses that he sometimes just wants to up and leave. This is timed rather conveniently with Fiver having a sudden apocalyptic vision.
His vision tells him that the entire warren will be destroyed and the field covered with blood. Fiver says they’ll have to leave immediately, and goes to see the Chief Rabbit to explain the situation. The chief isn’t receptive to the idea of leaving during the mating season. Remember that. Nonetheless Fiver and Hazel plan to leave that night, Hazel confirming that Fiver’s visions have always been right before. Several other rabbits join them: Pipkin, Dandelion, Blackberry, Silver and Violet. But the Owsla are not pleased. Their captain Holly tries to stop them from leaving. But another officer Bigwig defects and helps them escape. The rabbits get out of the warren, but also out of immediate safety. They’ve never been outside their home before, so somewhere as simple as a forest is actually unknown territory for them. This scene is very effective in outlining the fear the rabbits have at going into the unknown – especially with the predators in the forest like the owl and badger. When they get to the river, they find a dog has been let loose in the woods, and they have to hurriedly cross the river on a makeshift raft to get away from it. They then get to breathe easily as they go through fields that are really very pleasant to look at.
After discovering a road for the first time, the rabbits rest in a field of cabbages. Sadly Violet wanders out into the open to get a snack – and is immediately swooped up by a hawk. This gives the rabbits their first casualty. And it also eliminates the only female in the group. Remember that too. They take shelter in an empty church, but there they get attacked by a nasty group of rats. The commotion wakes up an owl sleeping inside too, but they manage to get out of that one unscathed. Unfortunately for them it’s raining now. And a few of them are debating about whether or not they were right to leave their home. Luckily for them, a rabbit called Cowslip offers to let them come into his warren. Despite Fiver’s uneasy feeling about it, everyone goes inside.
Cowslip’s warren is full of the smell of humans. According to him, this is because the humans leave fresh food for them every day. The food is not poisoned and the warren seems very comfortable. But again Fiver has a strange feeling about the place. He compares it to the mist – as if he’s being fooled. Likewise Cowslip starts to tell an oddly morbid poem that acts as a metaphor about accepting death with dignity. Fiver’s had enough of this and tries to run. Bigwig gets cross with him and makes to go back – until he’s caught in a snare. They’re able to free him, but we also get the first indicator of why this movie has terrified loads of children…
Fiver has some disturbing news about when he ran back to ask Cowslip for advice. Cowslip told him to forget about it and pretend it didn’t happen. The entire warren is surrounded by traps. The farmer keeps the rabbits fed just so he can have a steady source of food. Cowslip has conditioned all his fellow rabbits into accepting their fate in exchange for brief comforts. And they must never ask where anyone is, and pretend there are no traps. Thus making this the rabbit version of…
Unsurprisingly the rabbits want to leave immediately. And thankfully they see the perfect spot off in the distance. Another farm is on the way, and Hazel and Pipkin decide to take a detour inside. The reason becomes apparent: Hazel wants to pick up some chicks. More specifically a doe called Clover, who is kept in a cage as the human’s pet. Before Hazel can free her and her friends, the farmer’s cat finds them. They’re able get away and re-join the others. Their troubles are far from over however, as they hear a disturbance. It turns out to be none other than Captain Holly from their home. And the poor thing looks like he went through Extreme Makeover the other way round.
The reason for his haggard appearance is that their home was destroyed by humans. They filled in all the burrows, and the warren ended up blocked with dead bodies. Holly was the only one to get away. His story is accompanied with an art shift to show the nightmarish event in action – and thus suitably giving the kids another dose of terror. Holly claims he tried to find them, but the Efrafans wouldn’t let him go. If you’re wondering just what Efrafa is, we’re taken to that very place. It’s a warren, and the dark lighting and grim mood suggests it’s little better than Cowslip’s. We now get our first glance at the film’s villain – General Woundwort.
We get confirmation that he’s our villain when a timid doe called Hyzenthlay approaches him. She’s asking if she can lead some of the other rabbits on an expedition to find a new warren – since theirs is overcrowded and it’s impossible to produce litters. Woundwort forbids it, and orders Hyzenthlay to be watched in case she gets any other ideas. More upliftingly, the other rabbits have now reached their destination. And the backdrops as they discover their new home are just beautiful.
Along the way they find an injured bird called Kehaar, who also ran afoul of the farm cat. Because they’re feeling especially public spirited, they help him out and nurse him back to health in their new home. Said home is of course the titular Watership Down. You’d think that reaching this new home would be the conclusion of the story. But we’re only about forty-five minutes into the movie. And the rabbits have just realised a problem. Remember how Violet was the only doe to come with them? And remember they left in the middle of the mating season?
This also brings the film into some very awkward territory. Pretty much everything else in this has aged well. But this reflects some very outdated attitude towards gender roles. The story is pretty much a sausage fest. And the females are literally only needed to make sure the rabbits can reproduce. The males don’t try to find does because they’re lonely or looking for love (the book says that rabbits actually don’t have much time for romance). They just need factories to pop out babies. This doesn’t seem to have been written with any ill-will. The author Richard Adams was fifty-two when he published the book, having fought in World War II and thus used to a male majority. He drew most of his inspiration for the rabbits’ society from his experiences in the war, where female presence would have been a minimum. For what it’s worth, Hyzenthlay functions as a character once she enters the plot. She has a role in the story other than being someone’s mate – leading the resistance to General Woundwort and actively helping in the final battle against him. And when Adams published a sequel, he included more female rabbits playing big roles as an attempt to apologise for this. The TV series in the 90s went for a much more obvious solution:
They convince Kehaar to go off and search for does once his wing has healed. In the meantime, Hazel takes Dandelion and Blackberry back to the farm in the hopes of freeing Clover and the other hutch rabbits. This doesn’t go well, as the dog wakes up the farmer. The hutch rabbits are put back in their cages and Hazel ends up shot. Fiver is understandably saddened by the news, but he refuses to believe that Hazel is dead. So he goes back to the farm and thus begins the movie’s most famous sequence. The song “Bright Eyes” by Art Garfunkel plays as the artwork shifts into a more dreamlike style – as Fiver chases away the Black Rabbit of Inle, the rabbit version of the grim reaper. This sequence is beautifully animated, and the song is wonderfully haunting. It became a UK Number 1 when the film was released, and it’s what most people remember it for.
Fiver finds Hazel and it’s implied he helps him back to Watership Down. Kehaar returns with news – and he’s found Efrafa on his travels. Captain Holly advises against trying to get any does from there. He recalls a story from when he was there, and a rabbit called Blackavar was caught trying to escape. The state of Blackavar after the Owsla punished him is yet another nightmare in the minds of several children.
Holly only escaped thanks to Hynzethlay helping, and a timely train taking care of the Owsla chasing him. The rabbits decide to rescue the Efrafa crowd, though they allow Holly to stay behind (since he’d be instantly recognised). On the way there’s a rather random moment where Bigwig gets a fox to chase him and then quickly hooks back up with the others. His description of what it was all about takes longer than the event actually did to happen. Apparently it’s better explained in the book – where Bigwig accidentally ran into Efrafan rabbits and they ended up killed by the fox. This plays out well for Bigwig when he makes his next move. As a patrol approaches, Hazel and the others hide. But Bigwig claims he wants to join their Owsla. They’re running low on numbers thanks to the fox’s attack. As such, they agree to let him join – and mark him to prove it.
The Watership Down rabbits discover a boat and learn what it is, clearly realising the advantage of something that can carry them across the river. In Efrafa, Bigwig meets the attempted escapee Blackavar. He also manages to bump into Hyzenthlay and explain his plan. Kehaar arrives to hear the plan too, but he causes a bit of a commotion – and the rest of the Owsla notice. Nonetheless Hyzenthlay agrees to rally her friends at sunset. General Woundwort asks Bigwig about the fox attack, finding Bigwig’s lack of report very suspicious. Once Bigwig is allowed to leave, Woundwort has his captain Campion trail him. Nonetheless Bigwig and Hyzenthlay are able to start the escape. You can imagine Woundwort is less than thrilled.
Kehaar has unfortunately goofed and not realised he’s meant to meet the rabbits under the bridge instead of on top of it. This allows Woundwort and his army to catch up with them. But a timely flash of lightning alerts Kehaar, and he helps distract Woundwort long enough for the escapees to get to the river and get away in the boat. Looks like the bunnies will be practicing their multiplication tables soon enough…
After Kehaar bids goodbye to his new friends, the rabbits look to settle down peacefully with the repopulation problem now sorted. But as there’s still fifteen minutes left in the movie, we of course get news that General Woundwort is approaching Watership Down. The rabbits decide to hide in their burrows, while Hazel runs down to try and cut a deal with Woundwort. Hazel’s terms are joining the warrens together as a free independent state, while Woundwort wants the deserters returned to him. But since there are more children to terrify, naturally things result in the Efrafan Owsla trying to dig their way into the burrows. Fiver freaks out and has another vision: of a dog loose in the woods.
This gives Hazel an idea. He takes Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay with him while the others block up the burrow. As Hazel and his runners travel down the hill, he prays to the great Frith to offer his life in exchange for the others’ safety. But Frith does not bargain and he leaves everything up to the whims of fate. Back at the warren, Woundwort breaks into the burrow. Blackavar attempts to hold him off, but he’s quickly killed. Oddly enough he lived in the book. I assume this change is because, while Woundwort had been suitably scary, he had yet to do anything serious in the on-screen villainy department. Bigwig now has the other rabbits bury him under the ground.
Meanwhile on the farm, Hazel has Dandelion lie in wait while he bites the rope keeping the dog in place. Once the dog spots Dandelion, he gives chase. Hazel narrowly avoids being captured by the cat Tab. The dog chasing Dandelion is intercut with Woundwort advancing through the burrow. Bigwig jumps out of his hiding place and attacks Woundwort. Outside, Dandelion switches with Blackberry – so that the dog is now chasing him. Blackberry leads the dog to Hyzenthlay, and she convinces him to chase her up the hill to Watership Down. This is good timing, as the fight between Bigwig and Woundwort is getting particularly family unfriendly.
The approaching dog scares away the Efrafan Owsla. Woundwort angrily goes out of the burrow to yell at them for it, screaming “dogs aren’t dangerous!” after them. As if to prove his point, he then charges at the dog. We never find out what happened, as the narration tells us that Woundwort’s body was never found – and he could possibly be living out his fearsome life somewhere else. But that didn’t stop mother rabbits from telling bedtime stories about him. We then shift to an epilogue, showing a very old Hazel being approached by a spirit. This is another change over from the book to the film; in the book it’s the spirit of El-ahrairah – a hero from rabbit folklore. In the film it’s instead the Black Rabbit of Inle – the before seen rabbit grim reaper. Here it presents the Black Rabbit as a much less malevolent entity, peacefully welcoming Hazel into the afterlife. And it retroactively makes sense of the “Bright Eyes” sequence – where we now realise that the Black Rabbit was leading Fiver to where Hazel was hiding. Thus Hazel lies down to die, and his spirit goes with the Black Rabbit into the next life.
I actually wasn’t one of the children who grew up getting terrorised by this movie. My father claims he showed it to me when I was younger, but I never remembered it. And I never got to see it until I was about seventeen or eighteen. Part of the infamy comes from the British censors slapping it with a Universal rating, when a PG would have been more appropriate. They’re apparently still getting complaints about it to this day. Anyway Watership Down was a success in its native UK, but only did modest Box Office over in the US. In the years since it has been released, it has developed a strong cult following. And it’s not hard to see why: this is an epic story with a wonderful mythology created around it. The adventure and drama blend very well together for the most part. While some of the gender roles haven’t aged well and there are one or two pointless sequences – it still holds up nicely. The success of Watership Down led to a load of other adaptations – including a proposed CGI remake. The success of it may also have played a part in a very popular British TV series The Animals of Farthing Wood getting produced in the 90s – itself a rather dark and violent children’s story about animal adventures. On a more superficial level, it has some very nice watercolour backdrops, and fluid animation of all the various animal characters. Add that to some great voice performances and you have a wonderful story that can be enjoyed by viewers of most ages. But please for the love of Frith, DO NOT SHOW THIS MOVIE TO YOUR KIDS!!!!
Ahem, Movie of a Thousand Enemies, first Bobby must grade you.
*Story? A great adventure and look into rabbit society. It’s a shame the film wouldn’t be able to include more of the vast mythology the book created – but as an adaptation it’s perfectly fine. A+
*Characters? Despite a rather big cast, it’s mostly just Fiver, Hazel and Bigwig. Woundwort and Hyzenthlay are quite good in their short screen time. Woundwort especially makes for a frightening villain. Everyone else is kind of in the background. B-
*Performances? Top drawer voice work from everyone, especially John Hurt (Hazel), Richard Briers (Fiver), Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig) and definitely Harry Andrews (Woundwort). Denholm Elliot (Cowslip) and Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay) were notable too. Michael Hordern as Frith likewise had quite the presence. A+
*Visuals? Beautifully done watercolour backgrounds to represent the English countryside. Some unfortunate character designs make it a little hard to tell some of the rabbits from each other though. A-
*Special Effects? There’s not a single moment where the animal movements look stiff or unnatural. Likewise the art shifts in the other sequences are fluidly done. A
*Anything Else? Some awkward gender implications, and some sequences that weren’t really needed (the rats, the fox) overall. But “Bright Eyes” makes for a nice song. B-
Although we’re moving back to live action, we’re still stuck on the theme of travel. Up next is Neil Marshall’s Centurion.