Watership Down (1978) (PG)

I think a lot of people stumble onto animation and just assume that it's tailored for kids. They see drawn people or animals and immediately brand the style as "childish", which is frankly unfair. Then there's this curious thing that happens when an animated movie does not fit into the stereotypes they've constructed...the movie is seen as deceitful. I mean, why would they animate the movie if it wasn't meant for kids? There are few exceptions to the children's genre of animation, one of them being "Watership Down" which isn't an adult's movie, but certainly would disturb your toddler if they saw it.
The movie concerns rabbits at its basest level. Rabbits, which have a thousand enemies and their own rich folklore and way of speaking. They construct warrens for themselves and form militias, they pillage, they foresee the future. In many ways, this sounds like something out of a fantasy or an opera; but "Watership Down"somehow makes it all seem fairly plausible...you know, besides the whole talking rabbit thing.
Hazel (John Hurt) and his pal Fiver (Richard Briens) are out one day eating grass and clover when Fiver has a vision. He prophesies the end of the warren by envisioning blood covering the field like water. It's enough to disturb him wholly and he goes to the chief to ask that the warren relocate itself so as to escape the grisly death that may await it. Fiver and Hazel are shrugged off; but Hazel is so moved by Fiver's tenacity that he decides it would be best if they move out. Coming with them are a handful of other rabbits, including Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), one of the officers of the warren.
Now out in the woods and the wild, the rabbits are subjected to the elil. Enemies are all around and each one wants to kill the rabbits quickly, for food or for sport. Essentially, you will not find an animal that doesn't have some sort of grudge against our white-tailed, speedy little heroes and heroines.
So fraught with danger and the political commentary that begins when you start militarizing bunnies, "Watership Down" can be seen as a survival story, the cruel tale of mother nature, Frith, and the Black Rabbit.
"Watership Down" shows blood and I think that's one of the reasons that most people find it so shocking. There is genuine loss here, loss of blood, loss of innocence, and loss of life. Richard Adams's book was much more explicit at certain moments, particularly involving some of the gender issues that arises and the power structure of the patriarchy (it's there, I promise you, I'm not just being a snob) and Martin Rosen finds a way to condense all these suggestions into something a little more digestible. He's not as forward as Adams, but it is a good adaptation of the book.
The animation itself ranges from fairy tale to gruesomely realistic and everywhere in between. It's not as crystal clear as something from Disney might have been; but that allows it to inhabit the space where children are not necessarily the only audience watching the movie.
Sometimes the movie can drag, just as the book did, and some moments are glossed over too quickly and seem to serve no purpose. But by the end of the movie when the sentimentality creeps in, it does serve an emotional moment. It's quite a pleasant and satisfying ending.
I'm not sure that anyone else could have taken the book and turned it into something so original, unique, and well-down with animation. For that, "Watership Down" is floating by itself in a sea of magical fairies and signing brooms.

Score: ★★★½

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