Watership Down (1978)

Dir. Martin Rosen. Starring John Hurt, Michael Graham Cox, Richard Briers

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, there was a beautiful trend in animation which has by and large been abandoned by major studios. Characters would be rendered in a cartoonish, borderline cutesy style, but backgrounds and establishing shots would be rendered in these jawdropping watercolors. The Rescuers, which beat Watership Down to screens by a year, does it (albeit less frequently than Watership Down), as does The Fox and the Hound, which debuted in 1981. These are three of my all-time favorite animated movies, partly for the stories themselves but just as much for the juxtaposition between the simplistic critters on screen – bunnies and mice and foxes, oh my – and the smeared, foggy renderings behind them. The characters seem almost hyperreal in front of their dreamlike sets, actors who barely fit into their settings. There’s proof of that in the movies as well. Bernard and Bianca may be able to communicate with humans, but they largely live their lives below the notice of human beings for their own safety. Tod and Copper share a friendship for a short while before becoming uneasy combatants in other people’s fight. And the rabbits of Watership Down, though in some ways they live in the most realistic world of them all, tell an origin story which includes the words: “And when they catch you, they will kill you – but first they must catch you…” So it is that the displaced, wandering rabbits at the center of Watership Down go farthest across their hazy landscape, all the while clearly drawn targets for hawks and cats and dogs and, worst of all, other rabbits.

Watership Down is an ambitious movie, an adjective that only a handful of animated movies can claim beyond their technical achievements. Although it could embrace the cuteness of its characters – Fiver (Briers) and Pipkin (Roy Kinnear), little as they are, do fit that description – the movie begins with a remarkable high-detail shot of a rabbit’s eye, surrounded by layers of textured fur. It’s Hazel’s (Hurt) eye, and as we see him sitting and chewing, we’re given a clear enough message. This is a real rabbit, the movie says. We’ve just made his coat one color and one smooth texture for budgetary reasons. Otherwise his proportions are about right, his behavior is in nature, if not in specifics, lapine. With the exception of Fiver, who is reasonably clairvoyant, there aren’t many broken rules. One assumes that different rabbits have slightly different temperaments, and so it is not out of the question to believe in a slightly more combative rabbit and a slightly more calm rabbit and a slightly more anxious rabbit and so on. By the same token, the fact that some rabbits are cuter than others only serves to make us more afraid for them. Pipkin, frequently out of breath and as nervous as any other rabbit who doesn’t have visions, is prey with a British accent. Our eyes land on him as consistently as they land on anybody else; we can see him toddling along with his group, panting, out of breath, worrying as rabbits like Hazel and Bigwig (Cox) are a little more poised and stoic. The overall effect is that we fear for him; the cuter someone is, the more worried we are that he’s going to die a premature death. And how some characters die prematurely! In a movie populated largely with brown rabbits on green fields – Watership Down eschews red, orange, and even bright yellow throughout most of the story – the sight of red blood flowing is almost paralyzing. One rabbit is easily killed by Woundwort (Harry Andrews) and his bloody little corpse, torn-up and mangled, lies in the foreground. A dog comes along and obliterates some of Woundwort’s troops, savaging them and carrying them in his mouth, shaking his head and doubtless breaking their little necks for good measure.

Part of the ambition of this movie is that it often does its best work depicting events which are totally outside the characters’ knowledge, and which they are thus forced to imagine. Towards the beginning of the film, Fiver has a vision of a hillside rapidly covered in blood, a sight which is chilling even in animation. Holly (John Bennett) finds the voyaging rabbits before they make it to Watership Down, but manages to give them a report of what happened to the warren they left behind at Fiver’s advice. All of the rabbits were killed except Holly, who appears to have been slightly outside the kill zone. The dirt falls on top of the viewer’s point of view, blacking out any light. Rabbits push at the dirt but cannot budge. They are deathly pale in comparison to their black-brown surroundings, and their eyes are that telltale bloodred. The Black Rabbit, an angular, hopping avatar of death itself, appears to characters from time to time. Even the beginning of the movie is done in colors and patterns which do not remotely match the feel of the rest of the film. The animals are reddish and orangey and brown, much more cartoonish in nature and patterned with Aboriginal-style design. They walk about on a white ground with no obstacles other than the trees. The film does not spend much time delving into the rabbits’ religion, even though it refers back to it now and then; it takes the time to tell the story of El-ahrairah, which is part of the popular imagination of the characters, a cultural touchstone which they all share in regardless of level of belief. What’s around the rabbits – what’s real and tangible – is very beautiful. But imagination is somehow dangerous for a rabbit. The story of El-ahrairah is the story of arrogance punished by execution. What the company sees together when they hear of the destruction of their old warren is the punishment of imagination. Only Fiver, ostracized by the majority of his warren and cared for primarily by his sturdy older brother, can make imagination a benefit, and even that seems as much a curse for the runt as anything else. He shivers and shakes, haunted by inerrant futures that he can barely convince others to believe in and has no power to stop.

At the end of the movie, once Woundwort has mobilized some number of his Efrafa Owsla (translation – the police force of his warren) in order to recover the does that the Watership group have kidnapped, he refers to Bigwig as the chief. Bigwig is the biggest and strongest of the Watership rabbits, the loudest talker, and the one who successfully infiltrated Woundwort’s Owsla in order to set the rape of the Sabine bunnies in motion. When Bigwig says in passing “his chief” told him to defend his fellows, Woundwort is stunned; it is totally antithetical to his own concept of rule. Honestly, it’s a little amazing that Hazel is the unquestioned leader of the Watership rabbits. He is healthy and strong, but most of his friends are just as healthy and strong as him. He does not have Fiver’s ability to see the future. There are long stretches of the movie where Hazel really seems almost anonymous, no more or less important than any other rabbit; he is a leader who falls neatly back into the ranks. On the whole, though, what makes him stand out as a leader is his willingness to push on. Hazel defends Fiver’s fits and pushes for his brother to see the chief rabbit (Ralph Richardson); later on, when Cowslip (Denholm Elliott) invites the voyaging rabbits to stay in his warren, Five feels the pinch again and Hazel follows him. Frequently others will tell him they need to rest; he insists on making it to a safer place before doing so. He has the idea to pick up some female rabbits to increase the vitality of the warren, such as it would be, and he is the one who leads raids on the farm to try to get those does out. He is the one who sees the usefulness of Kehaar (Zero Mostel), a wounded gull with a voice like a Eastern European air raid siren. And he has the wherewithal, in the last minutes of his life, to recognize the down-to-earth offer that the Black Rabbit has for him. Join my Owsla, the Black Rabbit says. You’ve done well. Your warren will last. And Hazel – who has survived bigger rabbits, a diabolical cat, a fearsome dog, and untold other horrors – doesn’t hesitate. His spirit floats with the leaping Black Rabbit’s; he has the good sense to take death on his own terms when those terms are finally given.

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