by Rob Gonsalves
A fable of fettered souls yearning for freedom, "Watership Down" — based on the beloved novel by Richard Adams — has long been burdened with sociopolitical meaning that Adams himself never intended (or so he has said). A young, fearful rabbit named Fiver has been having troubling visions of impending doom. "The field is covered in blood," he whimpers, and we see that, sure enough, blood is everywhere. This, in case you were wondering, is your first clue that this isn't a Disney toon.Hardly anyone in Sandleford Warren takes Fiver seriously except his brother Hazel. These are very British rabbits; in one of my favorite moments, when Fiver is jabbering about his visions, we overhear a bemused rabbit muttering "What's he on about?"
"A dark and transfixing fable that happens to star cartoon bunnies."
Fiver's visions, it turns out, are real: Sandleford is soon to be bulldozed to make way for a housing development. So Fiver, Hazel, and a few other believers -- including Bigwig, a former member of the warren's "owsla" (paramilitary group) -- set off for points unknown. They have to trust in the intuitions of Fiver, who knows only that Sandleford is unsafe and that there is a better place ahead -- a high place of rolling hills, devoid of mankind. That place is Watership Down. Once there, they realize they don't have any does (females) with them, and a few of them go to a nearby farm to liberate some. In the course of their journey, the rabbits run across two other warrens: an odd place where the rabbits have good food but suspiciously empty burrows, and a fascist warren run by the fearsome General Woundwort. Scholars of the book have suggested that the rabbits in these latter warrens are doomed because they have abandoned Frith, the god of creation in the rabbits' mythology; they've abandoned spirituality in favor of personal gain (food) or power (the Efrafa warren run by Woundwort with the help of vicious owsla).
Richard Adams, who like so many authors began Watership Down as a story told to his children, put a lot of lapine mythology into his novel. Devotees of the book say this is where the movie version falls short. It has room only for the basic quest -- the dangers, the escapes, the battles, the strategies. My feeling is that the book is the book and the movie is the movie, and that if you want the mythology, it's there in Adams' book and its 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down. The movie still retains the vivid characterization of the novel, as well as the incidents that have sparked so much speculation. And it's beautifully realized -- a rainbow of muted colors and perfect voice casting. John Hurt is the voice of the sensible Hazel, Richard Briars the nervous visionary Fiver, Ralph Richardson the imposing Chief Rabbit, Denholm Elliott the snooty Cowslip -- who lives in the warren that fans have come to call the Warren of Shining Wires. A potentially discordant note is the loud seagull Kehaar, voiced by the loud Zero Mostel. Kehaar sometimes comes perilously close to being the Jar Jar Binks of Watership Down, but the difference is that he's funny when he's supposed to be, and helpful when he needs to be.
All told, the movie is an excellent and unsoftened take on the novel, though I regret the pacing that sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie; there are a few too many fades to black where it seems a commercial should go. There's a musical interlude set to the song "Bright Eyes" (sung by Art Garfunkel) that's subtle enough -- at least it's not a pull-out-the-stops Disney number -- but also runs on a bit. Otherwise, all these years later, this is the same movie I fell in love with as a kid. The villains are genuinely frightening; I'd put Woundwort up against anyone whose name begins with Darth, and the crosscutting in the climax -- Bigwig vs. Woundwort, while a hungry dog decimates most of the Efrafa owsla -- has it all over the similar climax in Star Wars Episode I. The grim, brutal moments stand out more in memory, but actually a good deal of the film is hopeful and almost idyllic.
Watership Down has gotten a somewhat tarnished "too intense for younger children" rep, and it does have its moments of abrupt, unforgiving violence when some of the characters meet the Black Rabbit of Inlé a lot sooner than they ever wanted to. When the rabbits are slashed, they bleed, and when they die, they go out with eyes open and tongues lolling out. But it really doesn't tell children anything they can't handle; hell, even Bambi showed kids that nature is cruel and man is the ugliest predator. They might as well learn it young. There is an actual Watership Down, the Hampshire/Berkenshire region located west of London; the land surrounding it is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In recent years, according to reports, the rabbits in the real-life Watership Down have multiplied and dug too many holes in what is essentially an agricultural area. The government came up with a plan to discourage the rabbits: mass extermination by gassing.It ain't no Bugs Bunny, folks. It's a fable that deserves to take its place alongside "Lord of the Rings" — and, to this critic anyway, it has far more resonance.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2485&reviewer=416
originally posted: 05/23/06 04:57:29