CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)

DIRECTED BY: Martin Rosen, John Hubley (uncredited)

FEATURING: Voices of , Zero Mostel, Richard Briers, , , Denholm Elliott, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern,

PLOT: Rabbits living in a warren called Sandleford leave their home when one of them, named Fiver (Briers), has a foreboding vision. Fiver and his brother Hazel (Hurt) lead their companions to a new hill, but the group finds even more acrimony and strife when they meet the imposing General Woundwort (Andrews).

Still from Watership Down (1978)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because while often dark, violent and sad, this film is only weird if you think that “cartoons” are only for kids. Anyone who’s seen Yellow Submarine, or practically any anime from Japan knows better. Watership Down is mature, but not weird.

COMMENTS: :Since most audiences think of animated characters as cute, furry and musical (like in most Disney product) or incessantly wisecracking (as in the films from Dreamworks, and practically every other studio), it’s refreshing to mentally travel back to a time—1978—when animation was in the doldrums, and filmmakers would take a chance on something as melancholy and brooding as Watership Down. In this movie, based on Richard Adams’ 1974 bestseller, rabbits bleed, foam at the mouth and die—on camera. There are no pop culture references, no Broadway-style musical numbers, and no jokes about bodily functions. So it’s easy to admire and appreciate this British film—on an academic level– for doing something different. But, unfortunately, the movie is just not that compelling. The animation is… good enough, with the bunnies being still cute, but not excessively anthropomorphic. But some of the other supporting characters, like the annoying seagull Kehaar (voiced by the great Zero Mostel, in his final performance), seem to have flown in straight from a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon. There are several impressive backgrounds, and effects like flowing water, which are particularly impressive when you consider that this was all done before the dawn of CGI. For a low-budget film, the animation isn’t bad. But the pacing is lethargic (it seems like the movie is almost half over before it really gets going), and it seems that trying to compress Adams’ 475-page novel into 92-minutes (which is only about as long as most conventional animated productions) is problematic.

With 36 years having passed since the release of this film, it’s difficult to watch it now without being reminded of other animated pictures with at least superficially similar plots. For instance, there was the admittedly much more light-hearted Chicken Run (another rare British animated film), about hens trying to escape a farm, as well as The Secret of NIMH, about a family of mice trying to relocate their home. Compared to those two gems, Watership Down comes up a bit short. On the plus side, the film’s music by Angela Morley is beautiful and haunting, as is Mike Batts’s song “Bright Eyes”, sung unmistakably by Art Garfunkel. When “Bright Eyes” is reprised during the closing moments of “Watership Down”, it’s genuinely affecting.

The DVD (there is no North American Region A Blu-ray) comes with a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries that are arguably more interesting than the movie itself. In one of them, director-writer-producer Rosen explains how he–having never directed anything before–took over the reins after original director John Hubley left, and how Malcolm Williamson also bailed on the project after writing only two pieces of music for the film. Angela Morley then came in and adapted that minimal score for the entire movie.

One final bit of trivia. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” called Watership Down “One of the best non-Disney animated films ever made.” While this is arguable in itself, the quote on the back of the DVD box eliminates the “non-Disney” qualification!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…filled with… extraordinary pieces of mythic imagery…”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: WATERSHIP DOWN (1978)”

  1. Any fans of this film owe it to themselves to seek out “Plague Dogs”, the other animated film by Martin Rosen, released a few years after Watership Down. Every bit as dark and harrowing, and (personally) an even better film than Watership, Plague Dogs is utterly unforgettable. Not “weird”, but emotionally devastating.

    1. Good call on Plague Dogs, but I think that film genuinely deserves a place on weird place simply because it exists. Admittedly it keeps the themes of desperate friendship and struggle, but cuts out the political “satire”/soapboxing that was in the book. IMO this is a good thing, as while there were some good bits (the weaselly journalist who causes the mess to get worse) there were plenty of crap that veered on the misnathropic (I remember a passage about how striking sewer workers are evil because all the sewer rats will die – boo hoo – and then later on a character (one of Adam’s actual friends) compares humans to rabbits and therefore should be culled too – nice).

      The film however just goes ahead and cuts to the chase, only focusing on the dogs yet absolving the humans of any actual “villiany”, making a more mysterious, realistic and ultimately more dangerous force. In the book the plague story was made up by the creep journalist, in the film it’s alot more vague and implied that maybe the dogs ARE carrying something, meaning the army have every right to destroy them. The plot is basically one massive, tragic accident, the dogs essentially being destined from the start to die for no real reason, it’s almost nihilistic – and yet it’s about talking dogs, and its director still views it as a simple adventure story!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.