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Revisiting: Watership Down (1978)

It’s difficult finding the right words for why Watership Down is one of the best animated films of all time. You would think it would be easy, but in the real world, whenever I try recommending it to friends, they stop me when I say the words “talking rabbits.”

“Oh, you mean like a Disney movie?”

“No, not at all.”

“But it’s a children’s film, right?”

“Yes, but…I don’t think kids would like it.”

“So it was made for adults?”

“Not …really?”

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Watership Down is only the third animated film to be released by Criterion. The other two are Akira and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Despite being an animated film about a bunch of anthropomorphic rabbits, Watership Down is dark. Guardian writer Phil Hoad recently named the film as the one that “frightened him the most,” and others frequently include the film on sporadic “most terrifying children’s film” lists. And it’s no surprise why the film spooked kids. In the film, rabbits get shot, eaten by hawks, trapped in snarls. Even author Richard Adams, who wrote the book the film is based on, recently revealed that he perhaps made the story “too dark.” But there’s more to Watership Down than its darkness, and sometimes it takes an adult outlook to see the brilliance shining through.

Based off Adams’ famous novel, the animated film, released in 1978, was director Michael Rosen’s debut feature. The film was a huge success in the U.K. and is regarded as one of the best British films of all time. The film is now the third animated film to receive the Criterion treatment–a prestige that only the best films receive. And yet, despite all its success, it seems impossible for the film to shake off its “weird cartoon” label and be taken seriously. Fortunately, the Criterion release is the first step, and recent rumors about a remake will hopefully cement its place as a film that should be critically recognized.

I recently rewatched Watership Down after avoiding it for years. As a child, I was too afraid to sit through the entire film. During the first time I watched it, I got up and left the room. I found it too weird and dark and, at the time, I couldn’t understand British accents that well. I wanted the rabbits to be cuter and friendlier; I hated seeing them in danger; and I hated the feeling of knowing that any of the rabbits could die at any moment. The film made ten-year-old me feel anxious and scared, and so I never finished it. When I returned to the film nearly two decades later, the film seemed entirely different to me as an adult. The violence wasn’t as bad as I remembered, and I found the darkness of the story compelling, an important asset to the story that wouldn’t be the same without it. But the most startling realization I had during my rewatch? Despite the primitive animation and paper-thin British voices, the film knocked me over with its emotional depth.

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“Heey, kiiids!”

Watership Down follows the tale of a group of rabbits who leave their warren when Fiver, a seer, foretells a future of doom for the rabbits (the infamous “field of blood” scene). A group of them band together and leave, looking for a new home. Their journey is rife with dangers. As the film explains in the intro, rabbits are the enemy of the world. With predators around every corner, the rabbits are at constant conflicts with dogs, cats, rats, and hawks. But the most interesting part of the story is not the rabbits’ various enemies, but the inner conflicts within the warren. The rabbits come across other rabbits in their journey and they quickly realize that not all of them can be trusted. Not to give too much away, but the last warren they encounter is similar to The Walking Dead‘s “governor.” There’s something about stories about psychopathic leaders drunk on their own power that’s always interesting.

But like I said earlier, the most harrowing thing about Watership Down is its emotional depth. I’m not the type to get too invested in characters, especially if they’re one-dimensional or not complex in some way. Even though all the rabbits each have their own personality, their motivations are all the same: to find a place to live peacefully. This easily could have been a story about a group of interchangeable bunnies with no personalities hobbling around from one location to the next. But in Watership Down they’re fully realized–Fiver the smart one, Hazel the leader, BigWig the tough guy. I found myself growing anxious whenever I felt one of them was in trouble.

During the last scene I was sitting at the edge of my couch, stressed that any of the main rabbits could die at any minute. Weirdly enough, I remember having the same feeling as a child, but as an adult, the feeling made me feel invested instead of afraid. This is what movies are supposed to do. No one stresses out while watching some Disney/Pixar film because the lead characters almost never die. In Watership Down, the world is gritty and realistic, and in the real world rabbits get shot, get chased by dogs, and get cornered by hungry cats. If anything, the film shows what life is like amongst the animal hierarchy, especially when you’re at the bottom.

Back when Adams first published his book, critics thought the story was an allegory for something larger, like religion. But Adams later denied it, saying the book is nothing more than “a story about rabbits made up and told in the car [to my daughters].” Watership Down might inevitably be just a good kids story, but its brilliance proves that some children’s films are too good to be appreciated by just children.

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