All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.
These words are uttered by an unseen narrator (well-voiced by Sir Michael Hordern) in the magical opening sequence of writer/director Martin Rosen’s Watership Down. The opening presents a creation myth centered on a god called Frith and a prince of rabbits named El-ahrairah. The movie then turns to the story of some of the descendants of the Rabbit Prince, who live in modern day Sandleford and are about to embark on a perilous journey to find a new home.
A cartoon movie about bunny rabbits doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that would hold the interest of a thoughtful adult. But give this 1978 movie a chance. Like the Richard Adams book upon which it is based, the film is dark, dramatic, and in parts, engagingly philosophical. Although older children will probably like it, Watership Down is really an animated movie for grown-ups.
The story centers on a warren in which all the rabbits seem happy and safe. Yet a rabbit named Fiver has a prophetic vision of blood and destruction. He and his older brother Hazel cannot get the local rabbit chief to believe them about the danger; indeed the warren’s police (the Owsla) try to suppress their dissent. With a group of fellow rebels, including a powerful former Owsla member named Bigwig, Fiver and Hazel fight their way out of their warren to seek a new home.
Their journey is filled with hazards and some of the rabbits come to bloody ends. They encounter different warrens with different sociologies and politics, eventually establishing their own independent warren at Watership Down, which Fiver had seen in a vision. But they soon come into conflict with another, imperialistic warren run by the menacing General Woundwart (as scary a villain as one could ask for in a movie about rabbits).
I consider Watership Down the best animated film ever produced in the UK. The rabbits’ faces are expressive and their movements realistic. The story is exciting and contains moments of serious drama. As for music, Art Garfunkel fans will appreciate “Bright Eyes”, which is accompanied here by an appealing animated sequence. And the voice actors, especially John Hurt, are outstanding. My only complaint is the presence of a comic relief bird character voiced by Zero Mostel (it was his final film performance). I suppose that was put in to make the film more kid-friendly…I think it would have better to just go for it and target the film at adults, but YMMV. Even if you don’t like the bird, it’s a small annoyance in what is overall a very good movie.
The trailer is a bit long, but gives a flavor of the film.
p.s. Rosen (and Hurt) went back to the Adams well a few years later to make The Plague Dogs. It drew nowhere near the same audience, probably because it’s significantly grimmer than Watership Down. But it too is an accomplished work.