When I first saw this animated feature directed by Robert Mosen and based on the novel by Richard Adams, I was maybe 5 years old at the most. My Mom picked up the Beta cassette for me at Erol’s Video because it had adorable cartoon bunnies on the cover. She had no clue what the story was about, she just figured I’d like the bunnies. Watership Down remains one of the most disturbing elements of my childhood and was possibly the catalyst for my love of horror and violence. I don’t know whether to thank my Mother or hate her.
While grazing out in the warren, Fiver, a rabbit, has a terrible and frightening vision of the fields turning to blood. Fiver convinces his friend, Hazel, that all the rabbits must leave the warren or they will certainly die. The head rabbit dismisses Fiver’s warnings as ludicris, and along with his enforcers, prevents the rabbits from fleeing. With the help of a rogue enforcer, Bigwig, a small band of rabbits escape the warren in the dead of night, beginning a trek that will lead them to a new home. Along the way, they are met with many challenges, including carnivorous predators, man-made traps, and enemy rabbits. Eventually, they settle in a warren called Watership Down, however, all is not well. A neighboring warren called Efrefra, run by the ugly and blood-thirsty General Woundwart, wants them out. Soon the two warrens erupt in a bloody war.
It sounds absolutely surreal, doesn’t it? That these rabbits are waging war over land, freedom and ideology, it seems so…human. Indeed, Richard Adams painstakingly maps out the hierarchy of warrens and the way “rabbit civilization” is structured. The details are mind-blowing, going so far as to create a new vocabulary used by the rabbits as well as their own religious beliefs regarding creation and death. And very little of this is done in a “cartoonish” manner. The rabbits presented in Watership Down are all very lifelike save for animated features which give them greater expression and personality. You’ll never look at rabbits the same way again.
One thing I and many others recall best about this movie is the intense amount of violence. These rabbits kill each other and the audience are rarely spared the gruesome visuals. The final battle is especially gruesome, as Bigwig and Woundwart face-off, ripping and mauling one another to pieces. And then there’s the dog. Good lord.
It’s also rather scary. You see everything from the point of view of the rabbits. From cars, to owls, to badgers, it’s all done in a manner that makes the audience feel just as small and fragile as the rabbits themselves. Everything takes on a sinister new appearance and you’ll actually find yourself jumping when the head of a badger with bloody lips pops out of a bush. The one scene which frightened me the most as a child, however, and usually resulted in me ejecting the video cassette and swearing never to watch it again, was the flashback sequence about the warren Fiver and the rest fled. A human construction crew filled in all the rabbit holes while working, causing all the rabbits to become buried alive. The visuals are haunting, as you see dozens of rabbits crowded together, scratching at the dirt, trying to dig their way out, moaning and screaming as they suffocate. It still freaks me out.
Watership Down is rated PG, much in the way that Jaws and Poltergeist are rated PG…debatably. It’s very violent and sometimes very scary, though the story and animation is strong and timeless. I’d recommend this to an older children’s audience. It’s certainly not for 5 year-olds, anyhow. There was a newer adaptation produced in 1999 which tones down the violence and mature themes, but at the same time, robs the film of its heart and depth. I’d avoid it if I were you. The original Watership Down, however, gets a solid A.