Cloaked Critic Reviews Watership Down Picture


"Watership Down" is an animated adventure drama released in 1978 based on the novel by Richard Adams which was published in 1972. This is a story much in the same vein as "The Secret of NIMH" and "The Plague Dogs" which were also based on novels published in and around the same time. Of course regarding the respective films, "Watership Down" has definitely more in common with "The Plague Dogs" in terms of art style and a far darker and more serious tone than Don Bluth's "The Secret of NIMH". In fact, this story is the darkest thing I've ever seen featuring rabbits. Generally most fantasy films which revolve around rabbits are either very cute and family-friendly or very cartoonish like Bugs Bunny and Roger Rabbit. This is like something straight from National Geographics! It's a story that reminds us that the world is cruel and nature is scary.

The movie starts off with a colorful bit of exposition presented through a delightful little Genesis-type fable which portrays the first rabbit in a similar light to Adam from the Bible. Much like how Adam and Eve are punished in the Bible, the first rabbit, El-ahrairah and his people are punished when the sun god, Frith, transforms nearly all the other animals on Earth so that they are stronger and deadlier than the rabbits. However unlike Adam and Eve's punishment in the Bible, El-ahrairah's punishment is actually more justified as his people were overpopulating the world, and had grown quite smug about it.

This story contains a very strong underlying religious theme coupled with a rather subtle hint toward environmentalism. In fact, of all the themes this story seems to embody the strongest of them all would appear to be faith. The epic journey the heroes embark on is first initiated by Fiver, a rather meek rabbit who appears to possess a type of psychic sense for danger. He warns of an unspecific danger that his brother, Hazel, and some of the others take heed to and then with the aid of his brother and the former Owsla, Bigwig, leads them to the equally unspecific "promised land" in the hills which they come to call "Watership Down". One might even go so far as equating Fiver to Moses or Noah as he leads his followers to safety in a new home, and rises from the social ghetto to become a respected member of the new warren. Of course even though Fiver may be the "prophet", his brother Hazel is the wise leader who uses his wisdom and cunning to provide for and protect his people, so with that in mind I suppose you could say that both siblings are sort of like a double messiah. Now while I, personally, am a very vocally critic of all forms of organized religion I do actually hold faith in high regard; for there are things which lie beyond one's physical senses and perception and there are indeed times in life when you are best served to follow your guts and intuition. When interviewed about the book, Richard Adams stated he had no intention of making a religious parody or allegory when he wrote it, but as a writer myself I can tell you that not all symbolism in movies and literature is purposefully meant. I've often found a considerable degree of mythological and spiritual allegories in my own work that I did not consciously intend.

In addition to the religious themes there is also a strong allusion to political corruption and bad government such as when the Chief Rabbit refuses to listen to Fiver and Hazel and then sends his "police force" to try and stop them from leaving. I actually count at least, three symbolic representations of bad government presented over the course of this story. First is the warren where they all lived before which was borderline totalitarian, then there's the farm warren where all the rabbits were fed and protected by the farmer but also caught and harvested by the farmer, and finally the Efrafa, which was fiercely totalitarian. If I were to try and label the models given in this story, I would say the first warren is symbolic of a traditional monarchy...I only say monarchy because the warren was destroyed and true absolute monarchies are practically extinct in the present-day; hence my reason for labeling it as such. The farm warren I see as a depiction of a socialist society because the farmer/government giveth and the farmer/government taketh away and all the rabbits/people had grown totally complacent and overly resigned, and finally the Efrafa were plain and simply a dictatorship which seemed to bear very slight parallels with Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Once again it is likely, Richard Adams did not intend these allegories, but they are present in the story nevertheless.

I'm not sure if he was this funny in the book, but the seagull, Kehaar, who the rabbits nurse back to health and befriend is this movie's sole comic relief; which is good, because without him this story would be completely without mirth. It's a dark tale and he does well to help lighten the mood in some of its darkest moments. I'm not sure why, but he sort of reminds me of Donald Duck for some reason; maybe it's because he's a seagull with a odd manner of speech and Donald was a sailor duck with an odd manner of speech and both of them are birds...I don't know.

Films like this remind me of why I love animation so much. It takes a powerful story and combines it with stunning visual artwork and a stirring soulful musical score. This movie is a timeless classic that has and will continue to shine down through the decades and is an exemplary display of the true beauty of the animation genre. I take off my hat to Mr. Richard Adams for writing the story, and I also tip my hat to Martin Rosen who brought this rich tale to the silver screen with the help of many other talented people.
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