Since the world was first contrived,
When Frith made creatures as they are,
Rabbits have survived and thrived,
Fleet of foot, the best by far,
Relying on their speed and tricks.
When a runt named Fiver feels
A danger coming for the warren,
Brother Hazel makes appeals
To leave for someplace safe but foreign,
Ere the danger he predicts.
On the journey toward a home
That Fiver sees upon a hill,
His companions dare and roam
Through perils always set to kill.
As rabbits, though, they must increase.
In Efrafa, a place oppressed,
Our heroes plan a great escape.
The wits and speed that serve them best
Must rescue them from quite a scrape
Before they rest in warren peace.

From the greatest novel about rabbits ever written comes the greatest film about rabbits ever made. While I chose this film for Easter Sunday because of the obvious bunny connection, it is indeed about rabbits, not bunnies. While the characters are frequently cute, just as real rabbits tend to be, some of them also manage to be grotesque and cruel, and there’s a striking frankness about the violence inherent in the lives of wild animals. For those sensitive Thumper-lovers like my VC or those who didn’t like a certain kitchen scene in Fatal Attraction, this may not be for you. Bunnies die, sometimes in a stark sudden disappearance like Bambi’s mother, sometimes in brief but bloody maulings. Because of this, its rating (U in Britain or G for the US) has come under fire repeatedly since its release; as a mature but not adult cartoon, the film is, I think, appropriate for older children, like the next step up from the kid-friendliness of Bambi.

The film itself is fascinating, not only for the rabbits’ epic quest for safety and prosperity on Watership Down, but in how author Richard Adams managed to create a rabbit culture at once understandable but distinctly different from our own. In the vast majority of films that build worlds involving talking animals, the filmmakers tend to anthropomorphize the characters to the point of human intelligence, wearing clothes, cooking, reading books, fashioning entire civilizations analogous to our own (An American Tail, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, et cetera, et cetera). I don’t object to this, but it is as if filmmakers can’t seem to let animals be animals. The main exceptions would be Bambi and Watership Down.

The rabbits, like Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and Hyzenthlay, are all appealing personalities, but they’re still rabbits, guided predominately by instinct, to eat, to reproduce, to be free. Their intelligence is limited, and the ways of man are inexplicable to them, but they survive, despite all the dangers that threaten their lives every day. The opening scene, drawn in a creatively cartoonish style, brilliantly establishes the mythology of the leporine culture, explaining in rabbit terms why life is as it is. The dialogue between the characters also borrows freely from the book’s Lapine terminology, which may not be fully understood upon its first hearing (Owsla=the warren enforcers, going tharn=freaking out, silflay=aboveground foraging).

If you’ll forgive the expression, this bunny tale is a slow boiler, so to speak; some may find it hard to get into (a musical interlude featuring Art Garfunkel singing “Bright Eyes” is lovely but slows the film down), yet it builds to a genuinely exciting climax with a last-minute escape, an underground siege, and a furry battle to the death. Production quality is also top-notch. The imagery ranges from beautiful and bucolic to surreal and nightmarish, and the voice acting is excellent, particularly John Hurt as Hazel, Michael Graham Cox as Bigwig, and Zero Mostel (in his last film role) as the tempestuous gull Kehaar. As a whole, the film succeeds whether as pure adventure or an animalized endorsement of freedom over totalitarian and fatalistic societies. Plus, the end is also subtly moving, and knowing myself, I probably would have cried had I seen it at a younger age. I’ve been meaning to read Watership Down for some time now, and this excellent animated adaptation just increases my interest. Happy Easter!

Best line: (Kehaar) “You stupid bunnies! You got no mates!”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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