There are some films which you enjoy while you’re watching, and immediately forget about once they’re over. Then there are films like Watership Down which stay in your consciousness for a while afterwards. What sets a movie like this apart from others?
On the surface, Watership Down is a relatively simple tale: a group of rabbits are searching for a place they can call home, free of the relentless dangers that exist in the wilderness. They had a home in a pasture, but one of the rabbits, Fiver, convinces many in the warren to leave based on his powerful premonition that something very bad was about to happen. Along the way, the rabbits, led by Fiver’s brother Hazel, escape the clutches of rabbit traps, rats, birds, cats, dogs, other rabbits, the elements, and anything and everything else in the world that wants them dead. It’s nothing personal — it’s just nature. When they finally reach a plateau that looks safe, they realize that they will need mates or the rabbit colony will not last long. The search for females leads them into the clutches of a tyrannical rabbit leader named General Woundwort, a menacing, one-eyed rabbit who has built himself a military dictatorship in his warren.
In superficial terms, Watership Down seems like a standard adventure story, but it stuck with me after it ended because of its overarching subject matter. There’s a noticeable overtone of death throughout the film, as these rabbits face imminent doom every moment they’re alive. The way it’s executed is different than your typical movie, though. First of all, in context of these rabbits fighting for survival, the group can’t mourn any loss for too long lest they be picked off too. That’s not to say the rabbits have no loyalty to each other: they stick together through thick and thin, and will help each other if they’re in trouble since there’s strength in numbers (a particularly memorable scene is when Bigwig, the muscle of the Hazel and Fiver’s group, is caught in a snare). But as one of the most preyed upon animals, they can’t afford to let down their guard for an instant (as when the lone female in their group is nabbed by a bird). But more importantly, the film treats death as a natural part of life, inescapable and affecting us all, but still not really something to fear. It allows the animals to cross over into the peaceful afterlife, and younger animals will take their place anyway. It’s all part of the circle of life, which is a concept that most viewers will recognize from The Lion King but this movie tackled it almost 20 years prior. This kind of maturity is rare in films, and even rarer in animation. I’m not ashamed to say the ending, which reflected these poignant themes, put some tears in my eyes.
The presentation helps with all of this. While the animation isn’t quite Disney quality (there are some choppy moments and some held poses), the animators did a good job capturing the behavior and body language of rabbits in their drawings, which is important for this kind of movie. Rabbits also have the built-in advantage of garnering empathy just from their cute appearance, which the animators also captured. It has a beautiful orchestral score by Angela Morley, which weaves a recurring melody in different tones throughout, and the painted backdrops which come close to museum quality at times. There are some inspired bits of storyboarding, particularly a moment when a rabbit escaped from a warren just before it was filled with dirt, and recalls the horrors of the rabbits who suffocated underneath the soil. At one point, the rabbits are merely drawn as disembodied heads as they are crushed. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is the opening, with its drawn in stylized, flat UPA form standing in sharp contrast to the rest of the movie, which is more realistic in style. The difference in the opening is no coincidence, since John Hubley, one of the founders of that UPA style, worked on the film before his death. The opening also features quirky, almost Biblical narration about how the order of the animal kingdom came to be.
Admittedly, it’s not a particularly “fun” movie. As mentioned, it’s very serious (I think there are two deliberate “jokes” in the whole film), and there’s a sense of ominous dread in most every scene, even when the characters aren’t in any immediate danger (which replicates what it must be like to be a wild animal). But a movie doesn’t have to be a barrel-of-laughs or feel-good to be worthy of attention. In addition, some of the best movies ever made are dramas, and animation is just as capable of that genre as live action. Just be aware going in that it’s not going to be a light affair.
Now that Watership Down is part of the Criterion Collection, some new special features are included. A 17-minute interview with Watership Down director Martin Rosen is first, which is my favorite featurette of the bunch, because it’s fascinating how a newcomer to the animation medium overcame challenge after challenge while making the film. Next up is a 13-minute interview with director Guillermo del Toro, who delves into why the film is significant and his first experience with it when he was a young teen, which changed his perspective on film. There are also feature-length storyboards, the theatrical trailer, and “Defining a Style,” running 12 minutes, which interviews animators and artists who worked on the film. The included booklet also has a six-page write-up on the themes in the film, particularly of death. And it goes without saying that Criterion’s treatment of the film on Blu-ray does the film justice, especially in its picture quality.
You won’t look at rabbits the same way again after seeing Watership Down. It’s an interesting movie that has its own mature feel and unique pacing. If you’re looking for something different in an animated film, Watership Down may be your ticket because of the way it defies many conventions in animated films. It stars a bunch of rabbits, but it’s definitely not a cutesy tale. It’s animated and stars animals, but it’s not a comedy or a musical. It borrows more from real life than fantasy, with the rabbits acting like real rabbits and not anthropomorphized creatures. It has some sequences that might be too much for little kids, including the taboo of blood. It feels more like a nature documentary than a whimsical tale because the dangers these rabbits face are very real and the movie doesn’t try to sugarcoat them. And it has a very bittersweet ending. For these reasons, Watership Down comes recommended.