What the Frith?! – Watership Down (1978) Review

Watership Down Poster

On paper, an animated film about rabbits looks like the most kid-friendly idea imaginable – they’re fluffy and cute. Job done. But wait, rabbits are low on the food chain and have many natural predators in the wild, so it might not all be so rosy. And If you were to accurately portray the struggles of rabbit life, surely there would be moments of danger and terror when said predators are encountered? It’s here that Watership Down steps up with a resounding ‘yes’. A rabbit’s life is fraught with conflict, which in turn breeds drama and in this case a fantastic film. But a film for the littluns? I’m not so sure.

Watership Down is adapted from the book of the same name by Richard Adams, put together at the behest of his daughters, from the stories he told them during car journeys. In crafting these tales, Adams drew from his experiences in World War II, particularly the battle of Arnhem, which might explain why the rabbits seem to deal with danger around every corner. The film adaptation remains true to the essence of the novel, making sure to highlight the perils of these not-so-fluffy bunnies. It’s gritty drama before it was on HBO.

The tale itself, set around the Hampshire countryside using real locations, follows a group of rabbits led by Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) who decide to abandon their warren after his brother Fiver (Richard Briers) has a disturbing vision of the imminent destruction of their home. With such a rich novel as its base, it’s a credit to director Mark Rosen’s screenplay that we’re brought up to speed quickly with rabbit culture, folklore and society – they’ve even got their own language (sort of). It’s so well structured that when the hraka (rabbit for *ahem* droppings) hits the fan, the tension is that much greater and the risks are that much riskier. Like the book, the film also touches on elements of captivity, death, nature, and most notably government and leadership. I’m not about to say that I gained an early political education from Watership Down but the seeds are there.

The Watership Down-ers have their own Lion King moment.

The Watership Down-ers have their own Lion King moment.

As soon as the opening credits appear, it’s clear that Watership Down is beautifully animated down to the smallest twitch of a rabbits ear, and every bit of it hand-drawn. Every backdrop is a marvellous watercolour painting that evokes a luscious and nostalgic view of the English countryside. It’s very rural in the best kind of way, and the lyrical score doesn’t hurt that either, not even the haunting ‘Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel. Moving on to the voice cast, their performances are all spot on providing much characterisation through their delivery, from Brier’s nervy Fiver to Harry Andrews’s gravel-throated General Woundwort. The standout though is Zero Mostel as Keehar the gull, whose broken English and acerbic attitude provide some brief levity to the life and death proceedings.

As I have hinted at earlier, the film has opted for an often stark approach to nature, and in certain moments it is very red in tooth and claw. It’s by no means a bloodbath but there are enough scenes that the film becomes memorable for not shying away from the red stuff. However, the violence supports the story by raising the stakes and the tension to produce an enduring animated classic…albeit probably requiring a PG certificate rather than a U. Mild peril, anyone?

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2 thoughts on “What the Frith?! – Watership Down (1978) Review

  1. Yeah, I remember trying to watch this a few times as a child and never getting past an hour of the film. Would love to rewatch it when I have time though to see what I think. But I agree – it does need a PG rating (just like Tangled, Brave and Frozen).

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    • It is rather intense for the very young, but definitely worth a watch now that you’re a take-no-nonsense hard-as-nails adult.
      Tangled and Frozen should be PG? Hmm, can’t say I agree there but I think I understand which bits you’re referring to. Brave is probably on the borderline – that scene in the ruins! Disney seem to be able to get away with a lot of freaky moments though: the rat in Lady & the Tramp, the underworld in Hercules, the list goes on!

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