(This review was originally posted on Rotten Tomatoes on June 26, 2013. I chose to posted here since it’s been in the Criterion Collection for a long time. I remember sending one of the folks who works for the company about this film. I doubt my email alone persuaded them, but its good to know I was one who was pushing for this film when it was under the radar in the mainstream.)
The animation genre is the most enduring genre for lighthearted family entertainment. With their colorful visuals, and freely imaginative world this sort of escapism is the main reason Watership Down is not recognized as a classic. It’s not a lighthearted, or cheery family film of any sort one simply just sits back and view. It’s more of a reflection on yourself, and the nature of the living world. Not only it is a significant piece of animation tackling real world issues, but also carries an uncommonly powerful emotional weight for such an unlikely group of character.
Watership Down is about a group of rabbits fleeing their doomed warren and facing many dangers to find and protect their new home. The premise despite sounding like it’s aimed at children does not succumb to downplaying its own premise. It even goes as far as tackling sadism, fascism, and creationism into the mix. Telling a mature story with an adult delivery. The plot is very dark more so than you might expect. It explores the subject of death and survival as we experience the dangerous and tragic journey with our rabbits. The rabbits are constantly fighting against their environment for a better home. What would have simply been a plot point in another film can be linked to how society breaks down, debate between those who want freedom from the old ways, and those who still cling on to it with power. On the surface it’s an effective film about survival with relatable characters regardless of the species difference. Underneath it is level of depth that gives the film a far more rewarding intellectual experience.
Martin’s Rosen direction for the film is flawless. The animation employs richly detailed hazy watercolor backdrops with naturalistic colors to the characters that inhabit it. This creates a sense of a realism into the world fitting into the mood it presents. One of the biggest highlights is the divine music combined with the Aztec style animations as Fiver tries to find Hazel, a simultaneous mixture of uplifting and depressing feel. This one scene will leave you lost for words. The voice talent on offer ranging from Denholm Elliot to Richard Briers is nothing short of perfect. The voice actor portray their roles with such dedication that the fact they’re talking animals won’t bother you and in the case of Harry Andrews he comes off as menacing as General Woundwort despite voicing a rabbit.
Going off topic I already feel I made my point by now on what makes Watership Down an under-appreciated masterpiece. Bold statement I know to call such an unknown film a masterpiece, but here’s another reason why I personally see it that way. Often the first thing that goes to anyone mind when it comes to animation is Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Studio Ghibli, and so many other studios. It’s mostly the cheering and family friendly feature that are most fondly remembered by their audiences. As with the case with many of these films the message delivery contains a simple execution, bright colors, and a single moral around it. That’s where Watership Down stands out from the pack. It’s more gritty, not afraid to frighten to kids, and show kids the more complicated dilemma of the world the way they are. I hold a belief that kids can handle anything you throw at them so long you provide a happy ending with your story. The ending here is bittersweet, but the last images that play out is one of an enlighten mood of outcome.
Watership Down is a masterpiece that best represent animation, and goes beyond what is expected of such a genre. From a dramatic standpoint it is tragic, uplifting, inspirational, and bittersweet. Even if you don’t read into the depths of it plot it holds moving story about survival. Containing themes and character relatable present in everyday life. Making Watership Down one of the significant film animated films in all of film making.