Reel Reviews

Film Reviews by a Real Person, Not a Critic

Watership Down

Title: Watership Down
Year: 1978
Director: Martin Rosen
Voices: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Harry Andrews
Rated: PG

Reel Reviews Rating:

Watership Down is another film that my boyfriend Netflixed because he saw this movie as a kid and wanted to see again. Wary of past childhood movies that he Netflixed and forced me to watch (e.g., Death Race 2000 and The Black Hole), I watched Watership Down with some trepidation. As it turned out, I didn’t have anything to worry after all.


Based on a children’s book of the same name, Watership Down is an animated film that focuses on a group of rabbits’ desire to establish a free and safe society, far away from the dangers of predators and other enemies.

The film starts off with a really cool Creation folktale about how the rabbit came to be the enemy of all predators. It threw me off a bit at first because the animation style differs from the rest of the film in that it’s somewhat South African-inspired, using a lot of earth tones (e.g. various shades of brown, yellow, and deep red-orange colors). The animals and scenery are drawn in an abstract manner.

When the main plot begins, the animation shifts to a more contemporary style. The animals are realistically drawn, unlike Disney renditions of animals, whose features are often exaggerated to add personality. Admittedly, the rabbits in Watership Down are drawn so realistically that many looked alike, much like most real rabbits look alike (IMO, at least). The scenery all look like paintings, but unlike Hayao Miyazaki’s work, the scenery in Watership Down makes it seem like the animators took a painting of a field, for example, and added the animated characters in later. The grass doesn’t rustle, nor do the trees sway. The background is very two dimensional.

Now, on to the plot.

When a young rabbit named Fiver (voiced by Briers) has nightmarish premonitions of the destruction of their warren, he and his brother Hazel (voiced by Hurt) try to warn the Chief Rabbit. Unfortunately, like Cassandra in The Iliad, the brothers’ warnings are ignored by the stubborn old rabbit. Hazel and Fiver escape, joined by several others. The rest of the film deals with the various dangers the group encounters on their perilous journey, such as cats, hawks, other rabbits, and the most dangerous of them all- man.

Watership Down contains some important social messages within the story. First of all, you have the concept of man as an ignorant and callous destroyer of nature. As some of the characters point out:

Blackberry: Men have always hated us.
Holly: No. They just destroyed the warren because we were in their way.
Fiver: They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the earth.

Second, Watership Down (both the book and film) has been interpreted as a political allegory demonstrating how extremist views can ruin a society. In their journey, the rabbits encounter two other warrens. One is called Efrafa, and it’s under a military dictatorship by an insane rabbit called General Woundwort (voiced by Andrews). The other warren (which wasn’t referred to by name in the film) featured rabbits who grew fat and reliant on food left for them by a nearby farmer. Although they’re fully aware that the food is only meant as bait, they risk their lives to get it.

Although Watership Down is an animated film, I often wondered who the target audience was. It’s not just because of the social themes, but because it’s more like a Miyazaki film than a Disney film. There are certain violent and disturbing scenes not suitable for little children. Fiver’s visions of his warren’s destruction are quite chilling, and even the opening fable has some violent situations. The rabbits themselves, as realistically drawn as they are, act a lot like humans. They don’t sing and dance like Disney’s animals. These rabbits had to struggle to survive.

Although it can be a little slow at times, Watership Down is a terrific movie. The animation is dated, but the story itself isn’t. I recommend renting this unheard-of classic.

Oh, and by the way, when you get to the end of the film, make sure you have tissues ready.

FUN FACT: John Hurt, who did the voice of protagonist Hazel in the 1978 version of Watership Down, did the voice of antagonist General Woundwort in the 1995 remake.


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February 24, 2006 - Posted by | Adventure, animation, Drama, Film Adaptation, Foreign, Social Commentary

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