Bunnies in Jeopardy:
Watership Down, an unsung animated classic
By Daniel Kraus

Like one of their many overdrawn villains, the Walt Disney feature film machine is too big, too powerful, and too maniacally prevalent to allow much in the way of competition. And when a bold hero does manage to wound the mighty beast with a show of spunk and creativity, he is rewarded by being incorporated—like the computer animation company Pixar, who’s first feature-length film was not "Pixar’s Toy Story," but "Disney’s Toy Story."

In the late 1970’s, Disney released a series of lackluster animated features, including The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps noticing this, Warner Brothers decided the time was right to take a chance on producer/director Martin Rosen’s vision for the beloved Richard Adams novel Watership Down. The striking 1978 promotional artwork of a silhouetted rabbit against a night sky announced that this would not be a children’s picture, as did the tagline: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a thousand enemies, and when they catch you they will kill you."

Unlike today’s non-Disney films, all of which succeed only by imitating the Disney formula, Watership Down was its own invention. The story was simple: relying on the ominous vision of a rabbit named Fiver, a group of bunnies flee from their doomed warren, and trek across the countryside to a safer haven. In order to gather does for mating, the rabbits infiltrate a nearby warren run by the fascist General Woundwort, and make a daring escape with a bunch of females. Thus, the story of their leader, Hazel, becomes bunny legend.

Out of necessity, the novel’s plot was greatly reduced, turning an epic adventure into a short series of brief escapades. But Rosen nailed the severe, sad, intelligent—even mythic—tone of the book. This was accomplished by stubbornly maintaining the film’s status as a drama. There are no wisecracking sidekicks; there are no harmonizing forest animals. Although the animals are physically cute, never are they REALLY cute—their wise, English voices and constant struggle for survival give them each a dignity reserved for only the most lofty of Disney characters (the Evil Queen in Snow White; Mufasa in The Lion King).

Like other great children’s films (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; The Wizard of Oz), Watership Down used imagery that seared in the minds of those who saw it as children. There are several experimental sequences that communicate great tragedy and massive death by bleeding and folding one image into another: the sun drips blood to intimate the devastation of the warren; a horrifying swirl of images illustrates how men fill in the warren holes and the dead bodies of the rabbits clog the tunnels; tractors rip apart the soil like bleeding wounds into flesh; the "Black Rabbit of Death" floats across the hillside, coming to silently snatch the soul of another rabbit. These images were all the more unsettling when seen against the beautiful, muted watercolor paintings that made up the majority of the scenery.

The film’s most shocking element was the large amount of animal violence, the sort of which would never pass censors today. Rabbits are caught in snares, tortured in slow-motion and fight each other to the death, their furious spittle mixing with their gushing blood. If Bambi showed kids the sadness of death, Watership Down showed them the blunt brutality of it.

The world, said Watership Down, was ugly. The myriad predators, with their sparkling eyes and blood-soaked fangs, were terrifying. Our heroes encounter a warren of rabbits who’ve accepted their supine role as being food for other animals, quoting dark poetry about accepting one’s fate. But balancing Watership Downs ugliness was a beautiful, gentle belief in the life cycle—when the Black Rabbit of Death finally comes for Hazel, it is inspiring rather than frightening. Even the one song in the film, the melancholy "Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkel, is an oddly perfect fit.

The only disappointing thing about Watership Down is that is missed its chance to set the bar for adult animated features. The movie feels like a film that has been edited-for-TV; each adventure feels unfairly truncated. In many ways, Watership Down—both the book and the movie—resemble other classic works whose popularity stretches across age barriers. Like Star Wars, it is a story of a brave rebellion against ruthless tyranny. Like Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, it is a Homeric journey of sacrifice and self-discovery.

Watership Down was not a complete success, but it possesses more genuine moments of beauty and sadness than any animated feature in the last thirty years, and harkens back to a time when animation represented the cutting edge of storytelling—instead of the status quo.