I was very young when Richard Adams’ Watership Down hit American movie theaters in 1978, but I do remember it seemed like every adult or teenager I knew had read or was reading the book, in preparation for the film. The plot is rather simple: Watership Down tells the tale of a group of rabbits who leave their warren after one rabbit, Fiver, has a premonition of it being destroyed. They find an unlikely leader in Fiver’s older brother, Hazel. The first one-third or so of the movie shows their journey from their old warren, while the remainder details what happens to them after they create a new settlement, the Watership Down of the title.

watership1.jpgThe small group of rabbits are risking their lives by setting out on their own They face uncertain weather, woods, dogs, rivers, natural predators, roads and automobiles, trains, and, most important, other, unfriendly, rabbits who would enslave them.
Watership Down began as a story Richard Adams told his children. In an interview, Adams said that he “began telling the story of the rabbits … improvised off the top of my head, as we were driving along.”His children insisted that he write it down–“they were very, very persistent”–and though he initially delayed, he eventually began writing in the evenings, completing it eighteen months later.
However, regardless of Adams original intent, the film version of Watership Down can hardly be considered a children’s story. Though the novel works as a children’s story, the filmed version was turned into something that was more like enjoyed by teenagers and adults. The director and screenwriter Martin Rosen (The Plague Dogs) seemed to take a fairly simple story and interpret it as though it were a Bible story. Rosen has made things more difficult by animating the film. He has written a very adult narrative to go along with a cartoon; a style most often associated with children. In an accompanying featurette, Martin Rosen confirms his biblical feelings toward the project where he says the tale is a quest, like “Moses leading the people to the Promised Land.” That is a fairly intense way to approach a film about rabbits. I can’t help but think Mr. Rosen forgot things translate different on screen. While it may be possible to envision the rabbits in the novel as human, on the screen they still look like cuddly rabbits.
In watching the film, one can easily see themes of totalitarianism vs. democracy, religion, spiritualism, pride and saving the Earth. However, most of these broader issues are bound to go right over the heads of young children. I first saw Watership Down when I was seven and just thought it was a movie about rabbits. I certainly didn’t understand the subtexts involved and remember being a bit scared at the amount of death that came into play. Even now, almost thirty years later, I was struck at how slow the film is. The whole thing moves rather episodically, first one thing and then another, with only the journey forward providing continuity.
Despite those flaws, there are several wonderful elements in the film; the quality of the animation, the music, and the voice characterizations. The animators highly stylize the first few minutes of prologue, and then in most of the movie they use soft watercolor background portraits to depict the pastoral settings and delicate character drawings to portray the creatures. Accompanying the animation is the appropriately pastoral score by from Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. The soundtrack scored a hit with the Mike Batt song, “Bright Eyes” (performed by Art Garfunkel).
Some of the best English actors around make up the voice talent: John Hurt as Hazel, a leader of the breakaway rabbits; Richard Briers as Fiver, the oracle; Michael Graham-Cox as Bigwig, another of the band’s leaders; Ralph Richardson as the Chief Rabbit; Roy Kinnear as Pipkin, a follower; Denholm Elliott as Cowslip, a suspicious fellow the group meet along the way; Harry Andrews as General Woundwort, the head of a rival warren of rabbits; Nigel Hawthorne as Capt. Campion; and Joss Ackland as the “Black Rabbit.” Most important is Zero Mostel, one of the few American actors in the film, in his final screen role. He plays Kehaar, an amusing seagull who steals the show. When he’s around, the whole movie comes to life. (Zero Mostel was awesome in almost everything he did.)
Watersip Down is nice to look at and lovely to look at, but the story drags at times. If you’ve never seen it before, be aware it’s not a young children’s film, just because it’s animated. Teenagers and above are more likely to appreciate the deeper themes on display in this one.
The movie’s original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, here enhanced for widescreen TVs, now fills out a 1.85:1 television screen. Viewers will notice a substantial amount of grain and noise. However, the colors are strong and the hues are balanced.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound does its job. There is a limited frequency response and dynamic range, and the rear channels yield about as much information as your surround-sound processor provides. Overall, I found the audio laid back, like much of the movie. The disc includes English as the only spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The Watership Down – Deluxe Edition has some special features recorded in 2005:
Watership Down: A Conversation With the Filmmakers – (17 minutes) Writer-director Martin Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings discuss making the film.
Defining a Style – (12 minutes) several of the movie’s artists and animators discuss the film and their roles in making it.
• Four storyboard-to-screen, multi-angle comparisons, where you use the “Angle” button on your remote to switch among three different views.