Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. These columns will run every Wednesday on our blogs, excluding the last post of each month, which will appear over at Fantasy Magazine. This week we take on what must be the most rented-and-then-returned-unfinished kids’ movies of all time. . .

The Film: Watership Down (1978)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Richard Adams first and foremost, that funny-loving scribe who also penned Plague Dogs, a novel about a pair of dogs who escape from an animal testing lab and are subsequently hunted by scientists. Script and direction by Martin Rosen based on Adams’ novel—Rosen went on to adapt Plague Dogs into a cartoon as well. Rather baffling soundtrack by Angela Morton, with an especially odious Art Garfunkel song inserted into the latter half that not only slows the film down but also led to Conor Oberst finding the perfect name for his band, though he’ll deny it and claim it’s a reference to the Shirely Temple film of the same name. We know the truth, Conor. Excellent voice acting by John Hurt (pretty much everything that’s awesome), Richard Briers (a lot of Kenneth Branaugh’s Shakespeare adaptations, including Hamlet and Henry V), Michael Graham Cox (a huge amount of British television I’ve never watched), Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Dragonslayer—we’ll be seeing more of old Ralphie around here), Denholm Elliot (Noises Off, the Indiana Jones movies), Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—Duh), and a load of other equally competent Britons. Finally, a stirring huzzah for the animation department—far too many individuals to name here, but props to the prop-worthy.

Quote: “There’s a dog loose in the wood!”

Alternate quote: “Stupid bunnies! Don’t got mates!”

First viewing by Jesse: Before age had any meaning—maybe six?

First viewing by Molly: Young. Young young young.

Most recent viewing by both: Last night.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. This was part of my parents’ betamax collection, and one I came back to again and again—yet for some reason I never took the time to read the novel, despite requesting and receiving a copy one early birthday. I was pretty young when I went through my bloody-mawed rabbits phase, so perhaps the book was over my head and by the time I was old enough to appreciate it the paperback had disappeared and I’d moved on to other bloody-mawed things.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: High, for book and film. Let’s put it this way—my well-worn paperback copy of Watership Down has a quote on the front that’s something along the lines of “everyone who can read English should read this book” and I have a hard time disagreeing. So yeah, I like it.

I do recall that my first viewing was incomplete–I was forced to turn it off because it was traumatizing whichever friend I was watching it with. I believe it was during the horrifying scene where Captain Holly recounts the gassing of the Sandleford Warren. A charming film! If memory serves, the whimpers from my co-viewer began with the weeeeeeird, vaguely perhaps Aboriginal art-inspired opening where Frith punishes El-ahrairah—you know, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, the John Henry/Robin Hood/King Arthur of the rabbits—for his cheek. I also recall pitching a fit when I was forced to turn it off—I wanted to know what happened to those goddamn rabbits.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I remember an incident, maybe six years ago, where I considered re-watching it but balked. I was still managing Video 21, this rad little independent video store in Tallahassee, and a guy came up the counter holding our battered vhs of Watership Down in one hand and his four year old daughter’s hand in the other. I asked if the movie was for her, and when he looked at me as if I was taking the piss I quickly asked if he had seen it. He had not. I explained that maybe it would be better if he screened it first considering some of the content, which led to him simply putting the movie back and getting a Beatrix Potter tape instead—his daughter’s go-to favorite, apparently. After they left I flirted with renting it myself, then re-shelved it in the Cult Classics instead of the Children’s films and called it a day—I do hope he went back and rented it for her when she was a little older.

Fast forward to the present and I was a little nervous—as much as I loved it as a kid, I hadn’t re-watched it for the better part of twenty years and while sometimes that distance makes a movie even better, other times revisiting a cherish film obviously sours the memory. Granted, from what I remembered I knew I wasn’t descending into another Conan the Destroyer, but the fear is ever present. Would there be more comic relief than I remembered? Would I start blubbering at the sad parts, whereupon Molly would out me in this column as a great big crybaby? (Molly says: Look, I weep at the end of the book every time I read it, and would never call someone out for being moved when Hazel is called to join the Owsla of the Black Rabbit of Inle. Also—he totally did cry at the end, but tried to front like I hadn’t seen that tear run down his cheek! [Jesse says: point of order—this really should be addressed in the post-viewing thoughts section or, better yet, not at all] But in the interest of full disclosure. . . I cried too.) Was it as brutal as my memories? I loved it as a child, yes, but it also savaged my young mind something fierce.

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was more confident in the film holding up because I’d rented it maybe eight or ten years ago, in a sort of precursor to this exercise. I also was in the mood because I’d picked it back up as some literary comfort food a few nights ago and ended up re-reading the whole thing.

The best thing was, however, the reaction our respective spouses had when we mentioned it was time to do Watership Down for Films of High Adventure. Normally, John and Raech are merely baffled by our odd need to punish our eyes, ears, and minds with films from our past—this time, they both looked downright apprehensive. Raech, I believe, asked some version of the very good question “why would you do that to yourselves?” John just shuddered.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Whoa. It’s crazy how much of this movie came back to me as I was watching it—I remembered just about every other scene as it was happening, right down to snatches of dialogue that have lay dormant in the old grey stuff for two decades; sleeper memories. I was genuinely impressed with how well everything held up, which is not often the case here around Films of High Adventure. Sure, we enjoy re-watching the movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually good, whereas with the exception of the occasionally fragmented storyline, and a certain wart named Art Garfunkel, this holds up crazy good.

It also wasn’t as grim as I remembered, or rather, I didn’t find it as sad/intense/scary, but then again I’m almost thirty so that probably impacts things a little. More than anything it really makes me want to read the novel one of these days, though I’ll probably give it some time—only so much bunny-on-bunny violence I can take in short span of time. Further differentiating itself from a lot of the movies we revisit here, I’d go so far as to say Watership Down is important, especially as a children’s film. Re-watching it made me regret moving Video 21’s copy to the Cult section instead of finding some other solution, because I can’t think of another movie that mixes a quest narrative with serious, realistic problems to better effect while still being highly accessible to kids. Plus, it has a silly bird, and kids love silly birds in cartoons:

Of course, the downside of this being a quality film about talking animals is that it was nigh impossible to find clips of it on youtube that weren’t overdubbed with the Lion King theme or some terrible pop song that bunbunfan69 really thinks captures the unspoken sexual tension simmering between Bigwig and General Woundwort in their final battle. At least I know if Molly ever really pisses me off and I need something truly evil to slip into an innocuous email I can find some Watership Down fanfic with the quickness.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Ahahah. I knew this was going to be awesome even from the first moment, as the DVD menu is the same as the poster:

WTF? Really? I love that the brutality of this film comes out in even the DVD menu. . . but what was the thought process here? Hey guys, you know that poster we made of Bigwig getting caught in a snare, you know, where he almost dies? Yeah, let’s use that as the first thing viewers see on the DVD. That’ll teach ‘em to rent Watership Fucking Down.

Anywho, God, but this is a movie made to encourage children to be Anglophiles, or nurture the Anglophile in the initiated grownup.  The landscapes are all like, hey, do you know what was awesome? The Hay Wain. Let’s make the whole movie look like that! There’s even a scene where Hazel and a friend raid a farm and they hear BBC coming in through the open window. So good!

It’s weird. In some ways, the movie tries to soften the book. . . for instance, doe rabbits play a more prominent role than in Adams’ original text, which makes sense cuz WD is a kids’ movie, and in the book, does are really looked at as breeding stock but not much more by the bucks. Also, just by virtue of it being a faster text, the movie removes some of the weirdness of the Warren of the Snares, and some of the ickyness surrounding General Woundwort and his horrible warren, Efrafa. I mean—here. Let’s just take a look at one of the poems in the book, shall we? This one is sung by one of the does of Efrafa to her friends who tried to leave the oppression and the insanity of General Woundwort’s rule, only to be rebuked and punished:

Long ago,

The yellowhammer sang, high on the thorn,

He sang near the litter that the doe brought out to play

He sang in the wind, and the kittens played below.

Their time slipped by, all under the elder bloom.

But the bird flew away, and now my heart is dark

And time will never play in the fields again.

Long ago,

The orange beetles clung to the rye-grass stems.

The windy grass was waving. A buck and a doe

Ran through the meadow. They scratched a hole in the bank,

They did what they pleased all under the hazel leaves.

But the beetles died in the frost and my heart is dark;

And I shall never choose a mate again.

The frost is falling, the frost falls into my body,

My nostrils, my ears are torpid under the frost.

The swift will come in the spring, crying “News! News!

Does, flow with milk and dig holes for your litters!”

I shall not hear. The embryos return

Into my dulled body. Across my sleep

There runs a wire fence to imprison the wind.

I shall never feel the wind blowing again.

At the same time (Jesse says: Jesus! We’re just moving on after that?! Not, like, a moment of silence or something? Jesu—I mean, Frith!), the movie ups the terror in weird ways. Unlike in the book, Hazel and his group of rabbits leave the Sandelford Warren with a doe—Violet—who gets snatched up by a hawk early on, and it’s like. . . OK! Awesome! Also, for no reason, the rabbits take shelter in a mausoleum rather than a barn, necessitating they lope through the World’s Spookiest Graveyard.

I think, though, what I love most about Watership Down is its expectation of the audience having some familiarity with the text. Richard Adams, in the book, gives the rabbits their own language—“lapine,” natch—and thus terms like “Owsla” (a chief rabbit’s go-to crew), “hrair” (many), “elil” (blanket term for enemies), and “hraka” (poop) are revealed through explanatory notes and even a dictionary for reference. In the movie, of course, the viewer has no dictionary, and so the uninitiated are left to boggle at, say, one of the first scenes where Hazel and Fiver are chased off a coltsfoot by two big fuckin rabbits after one snaps “coltsfoots are for Owsla, you know that.” OK! Sure! Then later on Bigwig cries “hraka!” while frustrated, and so on. It’s really awesome.

High Points: That it was made, and in such an uncompromising fashion. The beautiful watercolor backgrounds where, if you look closely enough, you can even see the texture of the Bristol board coming through. The decision to make certain parts darker than the book. The disturbing bits, such as Cowslip’s crazy ass. John Hurt. The emotion one comes to feel for cartoon rabbits. That it allegedly spawned the first roleplaying game where you could play a non-human character—Bunnies and Burrows. The fact that they didn’t end the movie before the final, tear-jerking moment. The opening animation sequence:

Final Verdict: When the Black Rabbit of Inle calls, you must answer.