I have thought more pointedly about death these past few months. It's always been a topic of fascination, dread, and even comfort. You may have read here that I've lost my maternal grandmother and stepfather-in-law recently. I'm still processing, running a wide gamut of feelings. Amidst the grief comes a sobering reminder of your own mortality, that someday you'll be lowered into the ground or perhaps scattered at sea like the loved ones before you. You being your earthly remains, the house in which your soul once lived. Depending on your beliefs, death can be a frightening or even greatly anticipated event. Some view it as the beginning of an afterlife. Others believe they will merely become carbon. Either way, for those left behind the sorrow of loss is considerable.
Richard Adams' 1972 novel Watership Down is about death. The story follows a group of rabbits who flee their warren after one warns the others of his apocalyptic dreams. He envisions a peaceful spot called Watership Down. Their journey to it is filled with treachery and peril. The 1978 animated feature of the same name is essentially faithful to the source, retaining generous characterizations and allegory. Though, as with many works of art, the creator denies any overt efforts at, for example, political statements. Adams in fact said he wrote the novel in order to have a story with animals to read to his children at bedtime.
Director Martin Rosen explains in an interview on the new Criterion disc that he was entirely unfamiliar with animation: what it means to "direct" it, how to film it, etc. He did not know the language. Despite this, he and his team have created one of what I consider the best "cartoons" of its time. Director Guillermo del Toro - also interviewed for Criterion's package - agrees. WATERSHIP DOWN is a stunningly hand drawn watercolor - filled with recreations of actual countryside locations - that teems with quiet power, making gut wrenching statements without garishness or spectacle. It does this despite the requisite pop song sequence (Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes") and some plotting that seems emphasized to crescendo suspense a bit more for popcorn munchers.
By the way - the "Bright Eyes" segment is extremely powerful and wholly appropriate. Unlike that in other films where songs are clumsily inserted to increase Billboard chart position. Garfunkel's heavenly voice is ideal to accompany the appearance of the Black Rabbit of Inlé, an equivalent to the Grim Reaper, whose scepter hangs over every event of the story.
WATERSHIP DOWN has an intriguing motif - everything is a predator to something else. Our heroes are terrorized by man, dogs, cats, other rabbits. The gull called Kehaar - who helps the protagonists find mates and escape danger- is frequently shown chasing and gulping flying insects in moments that are presumably humorous throwaways but really fit the theme. What about those tiny creatures? Are they less important than main characters Hazel or Fiver?
What did Frith, the god who created all the animals of the earth (shown in a brilliant and very creatively animated opening sequence), intend? How do we look at our furry friends? Pets? Meat? How do they (and the larger ones in the wild) look at us? There must be a hierarchy. Adams creates one with each rabbit character, some of whom are mere warrior minions for their respective warrens. Some resemble attempts at utopia, others as gulags ruled with fear. Others may appear safe but have a hidden agenda, with perhaps someone higher up on the food chain pulling the strings. You can take this idea as far as your theological leanings allow. I was reminded of several King James verses throughout this movie.
WATERSHIP DOWN was an English production, with fine voice work by the likes of John Hurt, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, and many others. The lone American in the cast, Zero Mostel voices Kehaar with what sounds like an exaggerated attempt at a Romanian accent. His inclusion is the only hint of comic relief, but as remarked earlier even the so-called playful moments can be observed from another angle, revealing something darker.
I can barely even think about this film without feeling a well in my eye. Just writing this review waters my vision. The more deeply you ponder this story, the more unbearable it may become. I felt this way when I first viewed it many years ago and possibly was more wrecked when I watched it a few weeks back. There have been more passages from this world since my childhood. Did they have a moment similar to Hazel's in their final seconds?
I immediately think of the bittersweet final moments. A scene that is both unspeakably sad and ultimately hopeful. That sums up the entire tale. It's an awesomely moving story told without sentiment. Its themes drive both intellectual and emotional interest in unexplainable ways. Many will find the picture an unrelenting downer, others will find optimism through the salt of their tears. All should come away with a renewed or new found respect for nature. Be sure to read noted comic book writer Gerald Jones' essay included in the DVD packaging - it analyzes WATERSHIP DOWN in a far better fashion than do my words.