I remember first watching Watership Down in fifth grade under the assumption that it was a cute animated film about rabbits. If you were one who had watched Watership Down during your youth making that same mistake that I had made at the time, you would already have been left with frightening images in your head after your first viewing – yet it still presents itself as one of the most beautiful animated films of all time. Written and directed by producer Martin Rosen in his directorial debut, Watership Down beautifully translates the debut novel of Richard Adams to the big screen in the most imaginative sense possible, something unlike most other animated films of the era with many of the classics of Walt Disney Studios having preceded what Martin Rosen makes you witness in Watership Down.
The film starts off with a fable about the creation of life animated by an uncredited John Hubley, who died before the release of the film. Every animal is a plant-eater, which soon led to food shortage after the rabbit population has multiplied. This would also result in the creation of their natural predator, yet soon the rabbits were presented with a gift of speed. Telling the story of a group of rabbits in a warren near Sandleford, Watership Down tells a story of survival as the rabbits search for a new home where they can relocate, following an apocalyptic vision of their warren. In bringing Richard Adams’s novel to the screen, writer-director Martin Rosen still retains a fairy tale-like quality to the work, adding a greater resonance as a parable.
Although the animation may seem quite dated by today’s standards, Watership Down’s best moments could not be any less stunning than they already are. From the backgrounds to the expressions of the characters, Watership Down still remains as stunning as ever. Adding to the beauty of the animation come to voice actors, with a cast that includes John Hurt as Hazel, Richard Briers as Fiver, Zero Mostel as the seagull Kehaar, whose work adds a beautiful jittery quality to the work, moving away from the traditional optimism that would be found in the most popular animated films of the era. No matter how frightening or violent the imagery presents itself to be, all of this adds a greater resonance to Rosen’s approach to the source material, forming an animated film that truly is one of its own kind.
No sequence better sums up the essence of Watership Down than the “Bright Eyes” sequence. Much is to be said about the beauty of the animation but Art Garfunkel’s voice also adds more to the haunting nature of said moment. As it follows a tragic act, the song encompasses a feeling of futility as the rabbits are still on the run, for they know they are under the shadow of their inevitable deaths. The film is shrouded with the idea of death, but even in the face of death there’s nothing else that our characters can do but move forward. Yet in that moment, it’s where the film leaves us wondering even if the rabbits’ desire to move to a new warren will truly be fruitful for their own selves. The recurring thought of the world being an enemy to the population remains intact, as what seems so ordinary to the human world may pose a deadly threat to the rabbits – yet Rosen also succeeds at making you see this perspective so vividly.
Despite the dark thematic content of Watership Down it still remains optimistic, which proves to be one of the film’s best qualities. As one could want from any animated film for children, you’re venturing with characters whose survival you are still rooting for and as their journey continues moving forward, it still offers a sense of optimism to balance out the perilous nature of this quest for a new life. It never feels that need to dwell solely on the dark aspects in order to allow a lasting impact, but even then it also presents a very comforting tone. It’s very comforting in that sense that even in the face of death there’s still a means to escape. It is never too late to confront those fears, as they all lunge at one another, there’s always the option to move forward without letting them hold you back.
Watership Down is one of the most beautiful animated films ever made, it’s a film that sticks with you, not only on the count of its haunting imagery but also for how it approaches its concept. On the surface this is a tale about rabbits who are simply searching for a means of survival in the face of death, but underneath that you have a tale of life versus nature – akin to mortal versus the gods who hold them back. It’s told in a very fairy tale-esque manner, like some kind of a dream, floating out on a tide, following the river of death downstream. Then soon it hits you that it isn’t so much of a dream anymore, as the bright eyes burning like fire, suddenly burn so pale. After watching Watership Down, that song won’t be all that never escapes your head, you will see that world around yourself in a different light – if anything best describes the beautifully haunting effect that the film leaves behind.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Janus Films.
Directed by Martin Rosen
Screenplay by Martin Rosen, from the novel by Richard Adams
Produced by Martin Rosen
Starring John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Simon Cadell, Harry Andrews, Zero Mostel
Release Date: October 19, 1978
Running Time: 91 minutes