Review: Watership Down (1978)

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Directed by: Martin Rosen | 90 minutes | drama, animation, adventure | Original Voice Cast: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Terence Rigby, Roy Kinnear, Richard O’Callaghan, Denholm Elliott, Lynn Farleigh, Mary Maddox, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Hannah Gordon

That a cartoon full of cute rabbits does not necessarily have to be cute is proven by the grim “Watership Down”, a dark cartoon from 1978 that, despite its advanced age, still manages to convince in this 3D-CGI animation era. “Watership Down” is based on Richard Adams’s 1972 novel of the same name.

The book – and the movie – tells about a group of rabbits. The animals have to flee from humans because the once beautiful hills are turned into a building site. The animals have to find a new place to live. Led by the clairvoyant Fiver and the tough Bigwig, the langurs set out to find a new home. It will be a trip full of danger. They have to cross dangerous highways and survive predators. In addition, there is a rival rabbit gang that does not like the arrival of newcomers.

Watership Down is an impressive film. The cartoon addresses recognizable topics such as destiny, meaning and individuality without appearing to be pedantic. The cartoon has no moralizing undertone and is very realistic. Animals die and it is nowhere safe for them. The law of the fittest applies and that results in tough confrontations. This is not a (typical) children’s film, but a film that does not present things more rosy than they are. You will also see blood in this grim fable.

The rabbits all have human qualities that make it easy for you to empathize with them. Fiver is very fragile, insecure and anxious. Yet he manages to find the strength to stand up for his friends when the moment comes. Bigwig is tough, but he too has doubts and has a hard time staying optimistic in a world where danger is omnipresent. The rabbits have a high cuddly factor, but turn out to be damn human and wrestle with relevant issues. That humanity makes the film so special and moving. “Watership Down” is so imaginable that you sometimes forget to watch a cartoon with roguish hanging ears.

The animation sometimes looks a bit dated, but the special design (watercolor drawings in the background and the somewhat raw drawing style) compensates a lot. It must also be said that the movements of the rabbits look very natural. You can see that a lot of work has gone into it. This is a classic. Point. A film that will appeal to children (not too young) and adults. It is a hard fable about refugees looking for a new home in a hostile world. A story about growing up. An action film in which the hero can of course retell it in one piece. A story about life and death. Very impressive.

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