Watership Down (1978)
Memory is a peculiar thing. I could have sworn I was a littler kid when I first saw Watership Down in the theaters, because I remember being frightened and disturbed by its violence. It turns out, however, that I was closer to 14 when the film came out in November 1978 and had already seen the arguably more discomfiting films Coma, Dawn of the Dead, Damien: Omen II, and Eyes of Laura Mars* earlier that year -- at adult prices, I might add -- with The Deer Hunter and Invasion of the Body Snatchers just around the corner.**
Not until I saw the film on the Criterion Collection list did I even consider watching it again on account of the bloody bunnies and everything, but no, I thought, it's on the list for a reason.*** My biggest fear was that Watership Down wouldn't be upsetting at all. Happily, it was, but not terribly and not in a way that would keep me from letting my own nearly-14-year-old see it (with adequate preparation; he's sensitive).
The film begins with the rabbits' cave-painting-like origin myth, in which their god, Frith (the sun), makes all the animals and gives them grass to eat. They live together in peace until the rabbits reproduce so much that there is no longer enough grass for everybody. Frith tells the prince of rabbits to knock it off, but he doesn't, so the god decides to differentiate the creatures by making some animals eat other animals instead of grass. Rabbits get to be most hunted, but they will be faster and smarter: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you...but first they must catch you." When a rabbit dies, his spirit is taken by the Black Rabbit of Inle.
Keep that in mind.
Watership Down follows a group of displaced wild rabbits on their quest to find a safe place to start a new warren after theirs is destroyed by humans. The hero, Hazel (John Hurt) is an ordinary rabbit with an extraordinary brother, Fiver (Richard Briers, whom I miss dearly) the runt of their litter. Fiver can see the future and it is he who predicts the coming destruction of the warren. Hazel tries to warn the leader, but he and the Owsla (bunny cops) think he and his weird little brother are nuts and send them away.
The brothers and few others escape only to be joined later be a couple of former Owsla after the warren is indeed destroyed. Eight rabbits in all -- er, seven, after a hawk immediately makes off with the only female -- wind up on the quest to find a new home, also predicted by Fiver, in what will eventually be Watership Down, an actual hill in Hampshire County.
Along the way, they meet up with a lost Russian seagull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel), a bunch of mean rabbits, some different meaner rabbits, dogs, humans, and other obstacles. Hazel proves to be a capable leader, but the adventurers run into a lot of realistic dangers and not all of them fare well. It ends well... just not for everybody.
Watership Down is a beautifully animated picture featuring great performances from the likes of Roy Kinnear, Nigel Hawthorne, and Michael Graham Cox. Be advised that the soundtrack is a little Spielbergian at times (feel THIS way, now THIS way), but it isn't always thus and there are some poignant, well-placed moments of silence. I believe it's permissible in 2015 to turn the sound all the way down during Art Garfunkel's solo hit "Bright Eyes," but don't miss the scene it scores.
If you do plan to watch this movie with kids, be prepared to answer questions about why people lay traps and why dogs kills things the way they do. I understand now why I thought I was younger the first time I saw it: watching an animal get hurt or killed in a film can make you feel emotionally vulnerable in a way that zombies, hellspawn, and serial killers can't. Even a child knows that the less realistic something is, the more entertaining it is to destroy -- and when all the world's its enemy, even an animated rabbit seems awfully real.
* I knew better than to go see Jaws 2 and Halloween, also released that year.
** Let's not forget Ice Castles, the scariest film of all.
*** Granted, I thought the same thing about Shock Corridor...
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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