Okay, we’ve not covered Watership Down on this site before but, for many adults all grown up, it’s one of those movies which scarred you as a kid. To be fair, this is a damn good animated movie, but it’s renowned for its unflinching brutality and depiction of a totalitarian state through fluffy bunny rabbits.
Released in 1978 and starring the vocal talents of Sir John Hurt, it’s a brutal film masquerading as a kid-friendly romp-along but, despite the terror it’s able to instil, it’s an important film to watch as it dishes out some important life lessons which have certainly stuck with us over the years.
Our very own Mr. Wapojif watched this as a young one on a day when he’d had a minor illness – he remembers being very cold one super cold late summer evening, needing a blanky, and kicking back to watch Watership Down. It’s an animation with rabbits – a rollicking adventure, surely?!
Based on Richard Adams’ novel from 1972, one can sum the themes up as something of a bunny rabbit polemic with environmental overtones. Then there’s also the horror. This starts early on when young Fiver (initially dismissed by the rest of the warren as a paranoid halfwit… also, a tenner would have been nicer) has mortifying dreams. He convinces a select few, led by Hazel, to make a break for it and, after his prophecies come true, they meet a survivor who lets rip with a horrifying tale of suffocation and a bunny rabbit crush.
Next up, Bigwig gets caught up in a snare trap and, my word, the brutality gets ramped up further and further when, attempting to find a peaceful nature reserve to call home, they come across a totalitarian bunny rabbit state (the Efrafans) run by a psychopath. Events become increasingly mental and bloody, with many pitched bunny rabbit on bunny rabbit battles leading to the conclusion.
Brian Jacques’ excellent Redwall series had similar themes of animals in conflict, although they possess anthropomorphic qualities which are entirely missing in Watership Down. Instead, the cast lends the rabbits endearing qualities – John Hurt’s distinctive, brilliant voice adds real haunting gravitas to the film as he can’t reel off a sentence without you thinking something remarkable has happened.
At the centre of it all, however, you have a powerful tale which is somehow classified with a U rating. As in, Universal – toddlers perfectly able to watch this one! With its themes of conflict, life, death, and mythology, it’s a complex one for any kid to take on, but this doesn’t take away from what is an excellent film… we’re just always surprised it doesn’t have an 18+ rating. Mind you, there is a rabbit called Dandelion, who surely alone is worthy of a PG rating…
The film begins with a remarkable section about bunny rabbit lore, which we couldn’t find on YouTube so plumped for the reworked version above. This is pretty captivating and encapsulates the nature of evolution in how creatures evolve to overcome the adversity they come up against (or, you know, God just put them here and all has been well ever since). It’s captivating stuff and, as a kid, it left Mr. Wapojif pretty spellbound.
There are moments of humour, too, mainly from the Russian seagull Keehar, who is cantankerous, foulmouthed, and always super cool. Voiced by Zero Mostel, who died in 1977 before the film was released, Keehar is the comic relief and also manages to land some pretty high-grade profanity into this “kids movie”. Whatever. It’s an 18+, this one, watch it at your peril.