Richard BriersWatership DownMichael HordernDenholm Elliott
Watership Down
Medium: film
Year: 1978
Director: Michael Rosen
Writer: Richard Adams, Michael Rosen
Keywords: animation
Country: UK
Actor: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Terence Rigby, Roy Kinnear, Richard O'Callaghan, Denholm Elliott, Lynn Farleigh, Mary Maddox, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Hannah Gordon, Nigel Hawthorne, Clifton Jones, Derek Griffiths, Michael Hordern, Joss Ackland, Michelle Price
Format: 101 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078480/
Website category: British
Review date: 24 February 2009
The most important British animated film until Wallace and Gromit. Frankly it's the only important one until Aardman, unless you feel like counting Yellow Submarine. The original book is Penguin Books' best-selling novel of all time, while the film was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Its soundtrack even includes a UK number one song, Bright Eyes. Twenty years later the book was adapted again as an animated TV series that ran for three seasons and 39 episodes and even reused two of the original voice actors (John Hurt and Richard Briers), but we're not here to talk about that.
In case you hadn't heard, this is an animated film about rabbits. What certificate is it? Why, it's a U. Or if you're in America or Australia, PG. Or if you're living in the real world, "Holy flaming Moses, it's a blood-soaked video nasty." Pity the poor child who mistakes this for Disney. Remake the same story with live-action humans and you'd have an 18-certificate before you could blink. Throats getting bitten out. Rabbits choking on their own blood as they die in snares. Poison gas, or something that looks a whole lot like it. A totalitarian regime under the bloodthirsty General Woundwort. This is not in any way a kiddie film. I mean, I'm sure lots of children would eat it up, but these are probably the same children who get a kick out of watching Halloween and Aliens when their parents aren't around.
I believe the first full-length British animated movie was a 1954 adaptation of Orwell's Animal Farm. Apparently the producers gave that film a happy ending, but if they hadn't, we might have been looking at a suitable double bill.
The landscapes are beautiful, but somehow always oppressive. You're never allowed to relax and admire the pretty pictures. These rabbits live with death all the time and thus so do you. Note the matter-of-fact way in which they note that one of their number has been taken by an eagle and keep moving.
The art is usually pretty good, although occasionally it startles you with a rough bit. At its worst, it can look almost amateurish. Look at that cat. They're not trying to hide the fact that these are indeed paintings and so the watercolour backgrounds are very clearly just that, although in fairness one thing they do very well is to evoke a specifically English countryside. Apparently the backgrounds and locations match the diagrams and maps in Adams's book, while all the art is based on real locations in or around Hampshire. However one thing it does superbly is to fuse the real and the mythical. Richard Adams created an entire culture for these rabbits, complete with language, poetry and religion. The film often goes off into the land of myth, evoked visually with primitive art styles that look almost like cave paintings or African folk art, which works surprisingly well. You don't even blink. All this airy-fairy stuff could have easily wrecked the film, but it's been made to look so effortless that you don't even think about it.
The voice cast though is to die for. John Hurt, Richard Briers, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, Roy Kinnear... I'm almost dribbling as I type. Michael Holdern basically plays God and never was a voice more perfectly cast.
Needless to say, the story is powerful. You don't throw a bunch of brave rabbits into a world of hurt like that and expect the audience to come out unscathed. General Woundwort is one of my favourite movie villains, a bogeyman fit to give children nightmares. The animators may not have been able to draw a cat, but they can certainly draw evil rabbits. This isn't a light-hearted movie, but fortunately there's comic relief with a seagull. I liked him. He was a lot of fun, giving the film a completely different voice and attitude when he was around. His name's Kehaar and he was the last role of Zero Mostel.
As an adaptation it's faithful, albeit stripped down. They've trimmed some side-plots, but they've kept the meat of the story. The rabbit language is all here, for instance, although they never explain or draw attention to any of it and quietly leave you to work out, for instance, what "fox" means in Lapine. I missed the bit in the novel where our hero tells Woundwort in Lapine to eat shit, but it wouldn't have worked in this film for an audience without a lot of clumsy set-up. Feminists have criticised the story for its, er, unsentimental attitude towards the fairer sex, but I think such critics are losers and that the film gets it exactly right. "We've got no does! Hmmm, better get some." These aren't sensitive New Age rabbits. They're fighting for their lives and focused on one thing only: survival. Stage one: us. Stage two: the warren.
In other words, it's bloody good. It's pretty dour except when Kehaar's around, but you'll have seen a powerful story if you can make it through to the end. It's got hallucinogenic bits and an ending in which God takes the hero up to heaven. Furthermore, despite any impression I might previously have given, I'm wholeheartedly in favour of children seeing this and getting a bit of meat instead of the usual televisual candyfloss. Just be aware of what you're letting them in for, that's all. I'm sure it would be far too much for some smaller children, but get them in front of it at the right age and you'll be giving them something they'll never forget. Yes, I do mean that in a good way.
It's not as good as the book, though.
Even if one day they remade this movie, I can't see anyone doing all this again. It's not the 1970s any more. We're too aware of the audience. "You mean he bites out his throat? You're kidding! There's gonna be parents seeing this..."