Notwithstanding a few Disney movies with unforgettable tragedies—we hardly knew ye, Bambi’s mother—the British bummer Watership Down might be the most depressing animated feature ever made. Adapted from Richard Adams’ popular fantasy novel, which was originally published in 1972, the film depicts the travails of a group of rabbits living in the English countryside.
When the story begins, a young rabbit named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) has an apocalyptic vision of his clan’s warren being destroyed. Fiver and his older brother, Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), share the vision with their contemptuous leader, Chief Rabbit (voiced by Ralph Richardson), who dismisses their worries. Sure that danger is looming, Fiver and Hazel lead a group of friends away from the warren in search of a new life. So begins an adventure that involves ecological devastation, existential quandaries, lethal predation, reproductive angst, social strife, and other heavy issues.
Written, produced, and directed by theater-trained Martin Rosen, Watership Down is an elegant piece of work. The illustration style aspires to both Disneyesque levels of pictorial beauty and unprecedented degrees of realism. Animals are drawn to resemble their real-life counterparts as closely as possible, while backgrounds comprise resplendent watercolor tableaux of foreboding fields and ominous skies. Combined with a moody musical backdrop supervised by Marcus Dods, the visuals create a downbeat atmosphere reflecting the constant presence of death in the lives of these worried little bunnies.
However, the narrative of Adams’ novel is extremely complex, so even though Rosen somewhat simplified the tale, Watership Down is still a challenge to follow. Clarity is further diminished by the choice to depict the rabbits realistically—it’s often difficult to tell one character from the other. Nonetheless, the seriousness of the film’s approach is impressive. Representing a genuine attempt to use animation for adult storytelling, Watership Down features equal measures of despair and gore and intelligence, never once pandering to viewers with cuteness.
When the movie reaches full flight, which isn’t too often, one can see the lyricism Rosen must have envisioned. The opening sequence, a super-stylized prologue depicting the history of the world according to rabbits, sets a high bar of concision and potency the movie never quite reaches again, though a mid-movie montage set to the ethereal theme song “Bright Eyes” (sung by Art Garfunkel) is highly evocative.
The movie also benefits from a voice cast including such reliable British thespians as Joss Ackland, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern, and Roy Kinnear. (The less said about Zero Mostel’s screechy vocal performance as a helpful seagull, the better.) Briers and Hurt are especially good, infusing their work with palpable emotion.
Watership Down: GROOVY