Watership Down feels like a missed opportunity. It sits in the middle of a children’s animated film and a gritty drama – about rabbits. It has some very mature themes, tackles adult ideas and has some real violence and peril, with the animals covered in blood and having very vicious altercations but then aspects of the movie seem too easy and slightly weak to be anything truly heavyweight.
It doesn’t help that we are dealing with characters that generally all look identical. Fiver, the rabbit who sparks the whole movie’s plot, is a timid, smaller rabbit but the rest feel interchangeable. This isn’t just because they use all the similar types of colours either. One major problem is that there aren’t distinct characters, or not enough of individual characteristics, to tell them apart. At times you aren’t sure if you are watching John Hurt’s Hazel or Michael Graham Cox’s Bigwig.
This means that some of the emotional heft is lost in the story too. Characters find themselves in real trouble; from being caught in a snare to evading capture from a hungry dog, but without really knowing who the character is, it doesn’t have the intended impact. This also goes for one of the more emotional moments in the movie. Hazel is supposedly killed so the beautiful Art Garfunkel version of Bright Eyes accompanies some abstract imagery around death. It is a famous moment in the movie but to say it goes nowhere is an understatement and like a lot of Watership Down, it feels like a lost opportunity.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some very good ideas within the film. At one point the rabbits are housed within a crazed warren with rabbits who give themselves up willingly to a farmer. It is a brief interlude but one with plenty of potential. The same can be said for the evil warren, run by General Woundwart, a rabbit who has clearly seen his share of battles. The spying and “undercover” operation is a good one but again, it feels under-developed and doesn’t go anywhere meaningful for long enough.
This would be fine if the film was trying to be a very basic kids movie but the tone is all wrong. It is a cartoon but isn’t aimed necessarily at children. The rabbits fighting and clawing at each other has real scenes of blood and injury, the kind that wouldn’t be appropriate for the middle of the day (ironically when the film is mostly shown).
A lot of people have fond memories of Watership Down or at least remember it because of the violence and terror involved but this seems to be what the film has become known for. It isn’t the good story or great animation, which is decent enough but showing it’s age, but the iconic song in the middle or the scary rabbits who claw out other character’s eyes.
Overall, Watership Down is a muddled movie which needs to pick a direction to stick with it. It is partly a movie about finding a new home, partly about oppressive regimes and at other times a spy movie with rabbits. It does all of this but none of it particularly well and when you have a weapon as powerful as Garfunkel singing Bright Eyes, it certainly needs to be used to better effect.
Rating – 2.5
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