Watership Down

Dir: Martin Rosen
Star: (voice) John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett

There aren't many times I have ever complained about the BBFC being too lenient. But, really: this is a "U"-rating? I suspect some lazy examiner thought "Animated rabbits? Must be Beatrix Potter", and slapped a cert on without bothering to watch it, so he could sneak off down the pub for a long lunch instead. For, sure, this is just like Peter Rabbit. If Peter Rabbit was a psychopath on mind-altering drugs, at least. This was a favourite book of mine growing up, but I don't recall it being so relentlessly harsh. It certainly had its moments, but it's quite a large book, and these elements were diluted, for example, by frequent telling of tales from lapine folklore. Here, they remove just about all that, and what you have left is the story of a small group of rabbits, forced on a "long march" after Fiver (Briers) has a premonition of doom befalling their warren, and their subsequent struggle for long-term survival, against wild animals, humans and even other rabbits, in the shape of the warren led by the borderline insane General Woundwort. Anyone dropping their kids in front of this, expecting Peter Cottontail, will have a lot of explaining to do, and likely a lot of sleepless night comforting said offspring. To quote another review, "You know that feeling you got when Bambiís Mom gets shot? This movie is that feeling, the whole time."

Not that this makes it worthless. Not at all, it's a refreshing throwback to a time when animated features were not necessarily aimed at children. It's a genre Hollywood has all but forgotten: the South Park movie might have been about the last such successful entry, and that was over 15 years ago now. The style here offers a nice contrast to the dark subject matter, with much of it looking like it was done in pastels or water-colours, and the lack of any real attempt to "humanize" the rabbit is also laudable. But are rabbits really that hard-core and vicious to each other? I'd have to go back and re-read R.M Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit, an oft-quoted source in the book, to check. Rosen sticks to his guns with admirable tenaciousness; about the only comedic notes come from Kehaar the sea-gull, whose clumsiness and accent (voiced by Zero Mostel) leave me wondering if he was some kind of ancestor to Jar Jar Binks. Overall, though, it's the kind of film you can admire rather than like, and left me with a strong urge to watch something light and amusing to cleanse the palate. Where did I put my copy of Requiem for a Dream?

[July 2015]

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