At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Watership Down “78”

MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Animated Adventure-Drama/Voices of: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Roy Kinnear, Terence Rigby, Mary Maddox, Richard O’Callaghan, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Hannah Gordon, Nigel Hawthorne, Lynn Farleigh, Clifton Jones, Derek Griffiths, Michael Hordern, Joss Ackland, Michelle Price; Narrated by: Michael Hordern/Runtime: 91 minutes (though some websites have a runtime of 102 minutes listed for reasons I don’t understand)

Well….I’m just going to go out on a limb and guess that maybe just maybe this might not have been the kids’ film that I thought it was going to be. At the same time though having to admit that does actually make for one heck of a mistake on my part (shocking I know, but in all fairness I AM human). This is because if there is one thing that I have learned in the long time I have been doing this that I should have remembered when sitting down to watch this slice of cinematic pie, it would be that just because a movie is animated by no means whatsoever does that make it a “kid’s film” with such examples of this phenomenon including 1972’s scathing and insidiously clever Fritz the Cat which I love with a thriving passion, 1999’s hilarious South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut, 2016’s immensely enjoyable Sausage Party, and of course the movie I am reviewing today 1978’s Watership Down or as I also like to call it: Bunny Rabbit Game of Thrones Yo (or something to that effect). No I’m not entirely sure if that is either an accurate description, a sarcastic yet somewhat honest observation, or both, but there is something that I am sure of. That of course would be the fact that yes this film is intense, yes it does get bloody at points, and yes this is a film that has no problem with going pitch black dark when it needs to (which is often by the way). Yet at the same time, this slice of cinematic pie is also beautifully animated, hauntingly scored (with particular regard to a song provided by none other than one half of famous music duo Simon and Garfunkel), and extraordinarily well performed by an incredible cast of iconic talent that are all aces and then some. Thus when you combine all these ingredients together, what you get is not just movie magic at its absolute finest, but you also get an iconic adaptation of a literary classic that is truly and utterly timeless in every sense of the word and worthy of sitting down and watching time and time again.

The plot is as follows: Based on the novel by Richard Adams, Watership Down takes us to a world very much like our very own “human world” where we see that a group of rabbits have all been living together in what can best be described, as cliché as it might sound, in relative peace, harmony, and tranquility. Or at least that was the case. I add that last part dear reader because we soon bear witness as one rabbit, a young one by the name of Fiver, has a horrific premonition of sorts of impending doom that will see no more and no less than the death of every rabbit in the group occur when it comes to pass. However when their attempt to convince the Chief Rabbit of the encroaching crisis goes absolutely nowhere we see that Fiver and his loving and loyal brother Hazel along with some of their group decide to not sit around and wait for the upcoming calamity to claim them in its grasp. Instead, this group of rabbits decides to set out on an incredible journey. One that will see them come into conflict with a manner of creatures even other rabbits with particular regard to a power-hungry one by the name of General Woundwort and his minions, face near-constant danger and peril at every curve and bend in the road, but which will hopefully at the end lead them to the one thing that they all hold very near and very dear to their hearts: a new home. One that will allow them not only to raise families and live long and happy lives, but one that they will be able to call their own now and always no matter what the cost to obtain it may be.

Now I know I touched on this a little bit at the beginning of the review, but in the off chance you are one of those readers who just skims through the reviews I write, I am going to once again make this clear: THIS IS NOT A KID’S FILM. I mean I get it: this is an animated film about a group of adorable looking bunnies and if you didn’t know any better I can definitely understand how you might this is something in the vein of 2018’s Peter Rabbit. This however is most definitely not the case. Rather, this is Peter Rabbit if Peter Rabbit was dark, emotional, and yes even fairly bloody at moments. Not only that, but this is Peter Rabbit if it was actually intelligent and thought-provoking as well. By that I mean this is a film that, despite its animated format, is one that touches on the very real and quite relatable themes of survival, freedom, and just what the cost can be for a group to both find a home and then have to keep it safe from those who wish to take it away from them and thus gives this animated film a dark edge that I feel is absolutely necessary. Yet despite how dark this slice of cinematic pie gets, there is no denying that this is also an extremely gorgeous film. Indeed kudos to the animators for choosing to go the hand drawn route when making this film because it not only looks absolutely stunning, but it also really does add to the timelessness of the story being told more so than the computer generated attempt we got of this source material from Netflix a few years ago which whilst good in its own right still doesn’t come close to this one. Finally, it is also worth noting that the soundtrack for this film does a wonderful job of adding to the haunting and surreal mood that permeates a lot of the film, but this is especially true when taking into account the contribution of a song called “Bright Eyes” by none other than Art Garfunkel. I mean I won’t tell you when this song comes into the movie, but I will tell you that it is one of the most beautiful and just plain moving musical accompaniments to an animated film I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. I mean not only does it fit the film perfectly, but it also touches the heart and the soul in a way that a lot of other music in film nowadays just isn’t able to do to the point that don’t be surprised if you find yourself close to tears listening to it.

Now in addition to the absolutely beautiful and gorgeous work done on this movie by the animation department to say nothing of the haunting and surreal addition to the movie’s soundtrack in the form of “Bright Eyes” provided to the film by iconic artist Art Garfunkel (of Simon and Garfunkel fame), I also feel it should be said that the cast of top-notch talent that this slice of cinematic pie managed to attract also does a wonderful job in bringing this truly extraordinary journey to life. This starts with John Hurt who gives us a vocal performance that is insightful, loyal, warm, assertive, and yet a bit pragmatic as well all of which are the defining qualities of the character Hazel and includes such screen dignitaries as Zero Mostel who is actually quite funny as the rabbits’ bird ally Kehaar, Richard Briers who brings just the right degrees of fear, timidness, but also inner strength to Fiver, Michael Graham Cox who is spot-on for the role of the courageous Bigwig, and Harry Andrews who honestly is absolutely terrifying and quite ruthless in the best way possible as the frightening tyrant that is General Woundwort. Yet even after having listed those standouts, I honestly can’t say that the rest of the cast in this genuinely bad per se. Rather, I think that everyone involved in this was both fairly well-cast and does a wonderfully passionate job at bringing their respective characters to life in a way that is both respectful to the source material whilst also making this accessible for those who had either never read the book before or even knew that this was based on a book in the first place.

All in all and at the end of the day with this project, one that incidentally had been a long-gestating passion project of his for a while, we get to witness as this slice of cinematic pie’s screenwriter/producer/helmer is able to astoundingly and incredibly accomplish what a lot of people thought would be quite the difficult task to pull off in making a cinematic take on an iconic British novel about a group of rabbits setting out on an odyssey in the aftermath of one receiving a vision of sorts (it’s not exactly made clear) that their home is about to be completely and utterly annihilated that was true to its source material. Yes you should know that there are a fair amount of scenes of brutal violence and bloody moments that are perhaps a bit more potent than you might think you would see in a film like this and yes this is an animated movie. Yet in all fairness not only was making this film animated perhaps the best way to bring this distinct narrative to life, but I still find myself deeply appreciating how much the film’s helmer was loyal to the source material and making it a movie that adults could definitely watch rather than trying to play to the masses and making this 110% for kids. Suffice it to say then that coming equipped with beautiful natural-looking animation that was all drawn by hand, a few distinctly dream and surreal like moments here and there, and amazingly well done voice over work from a gallery of top-flight acting talent including John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Richard Briers, Zero Mostel, and Denholm Elliott to name but a few, the 1978 slice of cinematic pie that is Watership Down is more than just an emotionally gripping, and pitch black fable involving upheaval of a political nature as well as the true cost of freedom. Rather it also makes for a richly riveting slice of cinematic pie that is a triumph in more ways than one due to how it is a riveting adventure at face value, but when you dive into it you discover that it is a quite immersive narrative that conjures up for the viewer some potent things to ponder over when it comes to life and death, being free, and finding a place to call your own to say nothing of doing whatever it takes to ensure it stays that way both during the film’s runtime and long after the film has ended. On a scale of 1-5 I give Watership Down “78” a solid 4 out of 5.