Easter is a very special time of year in the U.K if you’re a kid under eleven. Two weeks off of primary school with the whole world (okay, the park) as your oyster, with the culmination of all the merriment being presented on Easter Sunday with a horde of chocolate eggs bigger than your head to cram into your salivating gob. It was sugar-saturated bliss - so much so that it was awfully easy to overlook a certain, equally-established Christian festival taking place over this time. It might be a mild faux pas that the Church stole the date off of the pagans to use for their own big crucifixion party, but Easter was - and still is - a pretty big deal in Britain, even if just as a convenience to give teachers’ a fortnight or so away from the hyped-up Creme Egg monsters who were now terrorizing their parents.
But there are some other British traditions aside from all the sweet-munching, and the excuse-conjuring to escape your grandmother’s insistence on going to Mass. There would always be lots of special television programmes and films stacked up over this time to help the kids through their inevitable diabetic comedowns, and most of them tied into the holiday pretty well. After all, Easter is a time for reflection - when part of the celebration is about remembering that time a religious figurehead got murdered by having his arms and legs hammered into a wooden cross, you’d better spend that time musing on the frail candle of life, and the unavoidable, potentially bloody mortality that hangs over all of us. That’s some ‘growing up’ level heaviness to lay on a child, which was probably why us British sprogs had to be given such a morality tale packed under the disguise of a seemingly whimsical animated movie involving bunnies (oh look, another big Easter theme). From past to present, British television channels have always had just the thing for the occasion - they can just put Watership Down on.
A number of the people who experienced the movie as a young’un will have plenty to tell you about Watership Down’s legacy - namely how disturbing it was, how they cried at the end, how - to borrow a modern-day colloquialism - watching this caused them to ‘see some shit’ they’d never forget. Google image searches for the movie don’t really help its false reputation as a dark animated horror too scary for kids either - usually the first one that comes up is a picture of the film’s nemesis, General Woundwort, raging and rabidly frothing at the mouth. All of these things though have been carefully curated, by both the media and the mind’s eye alike, for the sake of nostalgic hyperbole. Truth is, Watership Down isn’t really a scary movie as such. In typical British fashion, it’s a bleak one - definitely. It’s also unmistakably bloody in parts. It’s unflinching and it captures the cruelty of nature in a nutshell. But for a kid, it still has the potential to be incredibly thoughtful, deep and moving, despite the age that now formed like fuzzy moss around its occasionally antiquated plot. And for the adults who’d be sitting down watching it with them, both its sense of maturity and the endurance of its artistic work still make it a great watch - whether you’re a fan of animation or otherwise.
The movie of Watership Down is practically an identical re-telling of Richard Adams’ book of the same name, right down to its opening and closing narrations. We won’t waste too much time divulging the full details of the considered literary classic that it follows - although we did write a fairly glowing review right here - but we will tell you that it’s more or less the same tale of Hazel, a rabbit tired of his life at a warren dictated by its police body, deciding to leave for pastures new with a bunch of fellow vagabonds in tow. The same themes also persist - the balance of life and death as they go about their journey to a new home evading the deadly threats of both man and predator alike, the presence of a belief system and fables in this rabbit world, and the advent of inter-bunnicular warfare, both brutal and vicious in its nature, often being unavoidable. What is different however is that with this being a 100-plus minute recount of a 400-plus page book, you don’t get half of the lengthy ramblings about the English countryside that Adams was so keen to put into the original work. The focus here then is far more on the adventure than the journey, and for much of its duration, the movie version delivers a fast pace, getting enough out of the original’s action-driven flashpoints (of which there are a surprising amount), to maintain a rapid-fire flow throughout.
What makes it all so urgent however - and that’s a pretty critical component in what keeps Watership Down relevant and ‘grown up’ so to speak - is down to the talents of the British voice acting behind it. Pace is nothing without urgency, and for an animation produced in 1978, the movie boasts a cast of mostly TV actors of the time to deliver the crucial sense of drama that Watership Down constantly evokes. Of these individuals, John Hurt (Alien, V for Vendetta, Harry Potter) is definitely the standout - not just in terms of his current-day standing, but also with his performance here for Hazel, espousing just the right balance of cunning, compassion and quiet command for the character that becomes such an important leader to his wandering kin. Joining him on that pedestal though is a certain Richard Briers, who never achieved the kind of feature-film exposure that Hurt did, but is certainly well-remembered in the U.K for his 70s screen work and long-running service to voice roles in general. He plays Fiver, Hazel’s prophetic, fearful younger brother, eliciting his character’s monologues of doom and gloom with a distinctively frail, dramatic energy that keeps them taut without ever becoming comical. Others also deserve a brief mention - Michael Graham Cox as the forthright, stubbornly courageous Bigwig and the American “Zero” Mostel as rambunctious seagull Kehaar - along with many others that there just isn’t enough space for. Only through watching the movie could one fully experience just how oddly natural, and essentially British, the voicework clinic put on show here comes across - and this quality is certainly one of the major two that delivers Watership Down as legitimate viewing for both young and old alike.
The other component is unquestionably the art. It has certainly aged - the animation in particular is primitive, even compared to movies 30 years before it - but the visuals retain a kind of longing in the way that old photographs do, gaining them a wistful quality of their own. Watership Down’s main style, particularly for its scenery, might seem a little gaudy like many 70s productions, but its watercolours definitely capture both the bleak and the serene of the rural English plains it takes place upon. It is almost as though the melancholy that pervades throughout the film has bled out from these colors and lines themselves while getting into everything else - certainly into the often-pained facial expressions of the protagonists, the emotion of the previously-mentioned voice actors and the overly flowery orchestral score. But there is a stunning amount of other visual techniques thrown into the mixer as well. Both the intro featuring El-Ahrairah, the rabbits’ main folklore hero, and a certain scene where Hazel gets shot by a farmer, are punctuated with sequences that are done in an almost primal, cave painting-like manner - invocative perhaps of the important element of spirituality that lies underneath the movie’s commentary on nature, and its role in delivering life or death. Even within the atmosphere of mild English grey that permeates, there is still room for vibrancy and color - Watership Down definitely needs these moments as much as it needs its gloom.
And if we’re going to talk about life, death and gloom - my goodness does this movie know how to deliver those moments. There is still a reason it has garnered the reputation it has after all. Rabbits are preyed upon - and promptly killed - by swooping hawks and other predators. The climax of the movie is a ritual celebration of bloody lacerations and the odd mangled rabbit corpse as Hazel’s companions stage a final confrontation against a rival warren. One unfortunate character’s re-telling of the man-brought destruction of the warren the protagonists originally left is accompanied with a piercingly graphic sequence of suffocating, crushing claustrophobia and red-eyed panic. It all sounds horrifying, and in parts it can be - but only in the educative way that nature deals to us. It’s not death for shock’s sake - rather, the movie in time illustrates it for all of the reactions we give to it, from trauma to grief to acceptance, and everything else in-between. And it’s also important to remember that this is still quite an amusing movie in parts - the film retains enough slapstick humour as well as that of the dry variety, to remind us that it isn’t just one long death-knell. In an odd way, it even manages to pack the right balance of feeling and theme to capture the essence of the human condition - and it’s a movie about rabbits, for goodness’ sake.
Perhaps that, more than anything else, is the reason why Watership Down is still talked about so vividly by British TV viewers of a certain age. As children, it touched, upset, disturbed and enlightened us in equal measure, in the same kind of ways that life often does. It’s also worthy to note that, being a product of 1978, it also stands as a critical landmark moment in the history of animation. Prior to this point, the vast majority of animation was largely dedicated to either caper-esque kids’ shows, with a very small scene on the side dedicated to crass, vulgar satires of the adult variety. Very rarely was there the opportunity for both child-like imagination and themes of a more mindful, mature variety to mix. But Watership Down was unquestionably one of the few that broke down that barrier, and proved there was far more to this medium than initially considered. It helped usher in the age of animated art that we can be grateful for today.