Watership Down review by The Grim Ringler
When we generally think of movies made for kids we think of very sanitized Disney animated movies in which there is an overtly sinister force trying to stop, oh, I dunno, whatever goody good, fun-loving rap-scallion that has taken the lead role in the film. The good guys and bad guys are very clearly drawn, are very clearly delineated, and are very easy to root for/against. The moral in the end, if we are lucky enough to warrant one, is that the little guy can win, good triumphs over evil, and, ummm, we need to buy a lot of toys made in the likeness of the heroes. Yeah Ahh, but thats not the whole story of kids films, is it? There are, from time to time, the scant few that slip through the cracks, films that actually show children a slice of life and the world they dont get elsewhere. Films that dare to not talk down to kids and that treat them with a modicum of respect. Films that are as much for adults as they are for children. With Watership Down this is what we get, a film with a depth and complexity that speaks to adults but with characters and ideas that children can get wrapped up in. Indeed, a film that, while it has its cult popularity, has never gotten the attention or interest it so richly deserves.
In a small rabbit warren where life is simple and happy a small runt of a rabbit named Fiver has a vision that the end is coming for them all. Where there are fields of green that have nourished the rabbits of the warren for ages Fiver sees blood and knows that Death in the form of the Black Rabbit (a mythical figure of death for the rabbits) is fast approaching and that if the rabbits of the warren are to live they must escape. No one will listen to Fiver save his brother Hazel, and even Hazel is skeptical as they approach the leader of the warren, who barely listens and indeed turns its back to the two as they are still begging for his attention. Insistent that the end is nigh, Fiver convinces Hazel and a few others to follow him, though they do it wearily, to safety. They are stopped during their escape by the larger, faster, stronger guards that watch the warren and keep the order, and many are rounded up and taken back to the warren to maintain the order there but some do manage to escape, adding to their party the ex-guard Bigwig who has been dismissed by the head rabbit and who now also fears the visions of Fiver. The few that escape though find a world of darkness and danger beyond the warren and immediately it seems as if they have made a great mistake and as they begin to see how very scary the big world is, their trust in Fiver falters. Just as many are speaking of returning to the warren they get word from a lone survivor that Fiver was indeed right and that Men have come and torn the warren up with their machines, killing all that the warren held and bringing Fivers vision to reality. Haunted by this dark revelation the rabbits happen upon what they believe will be a new home, an all but abandoned warren that seems all but deserted as its residents are in constant hiding, and which offers a great supply of food that is continually replenished. It seems perfecttoo perfect. Something they soon find out as Bigwig is caught in a rabbit trap that has been laid out and which explains the seemingly empty warren. Bigwig is caught around the throat in a noose that is quickly choking the life from him as his blood spills more and more freely from his mouth and the other work to free him but just as it seems they have lost their adopted leader he speaks and yet lives. Wanting revenge but wanting to be away more, the rabbits take to the hills again and after much searching find a new warren where they can begin-anew. They have everything they need, safety, food, water, shelterbut no female rabbits to mate with. Desperate to remedy this, the rabbits venture to a neighboring farm but find it too well guarded to truly have a chance at freeing the rabbits there and a failed escape attempt proves this to be true. And during this escape attempt Hazel is badly wounded and on the verge of death, the Black Rabbit coming to take him away as Fiver finds and rescues his brother, unwilling to let him go. All hope for the future of the rabbits seems lost when they make a strange alliance with a wayward and injured seagull that agrees to help them find female rabbits for their warren. They find them in a neighboring warren that is guarded and treated as an encampment and which is all but impossible to escape. Daring the fates though the rabbits, with Bigwig in the lead as a spy, endeavor to free the rabbits of the neighboring warren, and in so doing risk all of their lives as the warrens leader, General Woundwort swears revenge on these interloping rabbits. And indeed, the Black Rabbit will finally come to find victims to take to the afterlife as a final fight rages between the forces of the general and Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and the rest.
Adapted from the novel by Richard Adams Watership Down is the dark, challenging film that children rarely get but desperately need. Raising such issues as environmentalism, death, leadership, courage, and half a dozen other ideas, this is not a film that children will readily enjoy at first but that will get much from. This is not an easy film to like as it truly is a struggle between life and death, freedom and enslavement in this film and we do lose characters we love and are shown dark images of rabbits dying and being killed. But never does the film take glee in any of the death, giving every death a dark feel so that you cannot take it lightly, no matter who it is that dies. The graphic nature of these scenes is meant not to revel in the blood but in order to face death for what it is, the taking away of a very vibrant life. But while death is never made light of, as we see at the end, death is nothing to fear if it is faced openly and seen for what it is and not what we believe it to be. The Black Rabbit, a figure both hated and feared, comes to a character at the end of the film not as an enemy but as a friend, offering sleep and peace and an eternity among the rabbits ancestors, not darkness and pain. And this is a message children desperately need and which parents are never fully able to convey until its too late. Death, the ultimate issue children must come to grips with, is handled in Watership Down in a very straightforward, non-religious way that can do nothing but open the door to discussion between parents and their children.
The DVD for Watership Down is sadly pretty featureless, thought they do offer some very scant notes about the film and its author but for a movie what has drawn so much cult attention, I am rather shocked there isnt more offered. The picture is clear though there are a lot of defects in the print itself, which is a bit of a disappointment, though the art still is quite wonderful in this animated treasure. The sound is in stereo and, while nothing to get excited about, is handled well, the theme song Bright Eyes sounding marvelous during the film itself.
Brutal and beautiful, haunting and harrowing, this is a wonderful film for people of all ages but especially for children who have yet to really deal with death, loss, and the ideas that Man is not the kindest to the weaker species of the earth. This is the perfect film to show older children in school and to use as a means to discuss any number of topics, which are rarely faced until its too late to do it easily. While not for everyone, as it is very dark and very sad at times, this is, in the end, a tremendous film that revels in the freedom of choice and the freedom to live as one pleases, but that also shows the sacrifices that must be made in order to live this way. A true animation classic.
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