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  Watership Down Rabbitting On
Year: 1978
Director: Martin Rosen
Stars: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Harry Andrews, Zero Mostel, Roy Kinnear, Simon Cadell, Hannah Gordon, Michael Hordern, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Griffiths, Joss Ackland, Terence Rigby
Genre: Animated, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: The rabbits have a legend of how they came to be which tells of a time when all animals ate plants until the rabbits became too prosperous and the god Frith was forced to introduce predators into their world - yet Frith also gave them the power to outrun danger. When rabbit Fiver (Richard Briers) has a vision of the warren he lives in being destroyed, he persuades his brother Hazel (John Hurt) to round up some friends and escape to set up a new warren elsewhere, because rabbits have the ability to flee given to them by Frith. But there are many dangers ahead...

Remember when The Goodies spoofed this? With the TV presenters in bunny costumes? No? Anyway, Martin Rosen adapted Richard Adams' classic nature novel for the screen in cartoon form. As with the book, this story is not necessarily a children's story, the animation is far from cuddly for the most part, shaded in browns, greens and greys rather than the bright primary colours you might have expected from an animation aimed at family audiences. The creatures are recognisable from real life, yet it's clear that this is a project Disney would never have taken on.

This is a dark film: the rabbits are said, in their own folklore, to have a thousand enemies and watching this you can believe it. They are threatened at every turn by men, dogs, cats, hawks, busy roads and even other rabbits - the shadow of death hangs over them. They have such a bad time of it that you can't help but warm to their determination and endurance; it's oddly moving at times. It's a film about survivors and that is never clearer when Hazel leads his small band out into the wider world and encounter a warren that exists to feed the men who may provide food, but also set snares for them to be caught for the pot.

While you may have a problem in telling the rabbits apart (even their voices sound unexpectedly similar), the important characters are strong enough not to make things too confusing. Kehaar the seagull (Zero Mostel) provides some welcome light relief, and General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) is suitably menacing. Angela Morley's music plays an vital part in creating the atmosphere of the film, and, of course, there's Art Garfunkel singing Mike Batt's song "Bright Eyes", which was number one for the whole of 1979 (or it seemed like it).

And that song is a case in point as to how unsentimental this is, especially considering Rosen and his team could have gone for easy tears throughout. When "Bright Eyes" plays it is at the sequence where Hazel has been left for dead from a shotgun wound, and Fiver goes back to save him, unwilling to accept his brother is lost to them; like the rest, it comes across as far from corny but touches the heart all the same. In its latter stages, Watership Down turns into a war movie with rabbits, from a P.O.W. escape story to one of actual combat as Hazel attempts to set up his own society apart from the fascistic General Woundwort. By the finale, we have met some brave animals from the rabbits to their seagull friend (and yes, he does yell "Piss off!" when introduced), and have felt a newfound admiration for the furry crusaders. No, I'm alright... just something in my eye, that's all...
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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