I think I vaguely remember life before watching Watership Down as a child. Ah, what a gilded age that was; a time before knowing that “All the world will be your enemy,” and before seeing the destruction wrought by the plowing of the warren, or the climactic showdown between Woundwort, Bigwig and the dog. “Dogs aren’t dangerous!” General Woundwort snarls, as he lunges to his fate.
For the longest time I did not know what the title referred to; in suburban Wisconsin we don’t really have “Downs” per se, but I later learned that it is a place in England. A real place, and according to the DVD supplements, much unchanged since the novel was written… I should like to visit some day. I found it completely fascinating to learn that the director and editor were essentially inexperienced at filmmaking, and somehow ended up producing a timeless classic. The magnificent score was created almost entirely in two weeks by a last-minute substitute composer who had to be convinced to participate at all. Bonus: John Hurt stars as Hazel!
(As a side note, it is striking how many animators, including some of those on Watership Down, seem to have a personal vendetta against Disney films. I can understand why- I much prefer the work of people like Bluth or Miyazaki.)
While this film may have left some psychic scars on many, many youth (myself included,) these sort of scars are not always a bad thing. They can be educational. The film is very beautifully imagined which gives its horrific scenes that much more impact, both on the story and visuals. The “Bright Eyes” sequence still evokes some sort of tragic melancholy which is hard to explain.
I have yet to read the book or its follow-up, and Adams also wrote another story called The Plague Dogs which was made into a somewhat less affecting film by the same team. I am interested to see how Watership Down was originally envisioned on the page; the myths and emotion remind me a bit of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is masterful fiction.
Long story short, if you enjoy animation, you must watch this movie. If you have kids, they must watch it too, but only when they are in that narrow window where they are not too impressionable by dramatic violence, though still interested in movies about rabbits. This is one of those works I consider a gift to even experience, and I hope it makes it to blu-ray soon.
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