Watership Down begins with an iridescent slab of primal, irradiated cartoon psychosis, a deceptively primitive work of mythological animation as welcome in the Disney canon as it would be adorning Ancient Greek pottery. Regaling us with the oil-and-syrup concoction that is the mythological fable of rabbit-kind, we’re informed how the fecund species was blessed with fleet feet and cursed with a menagerie of predators. The simultaneously timid and trepidatious imagery of crayon-infused characters backed by an illuminated white hell evokes a cautionary tale most bold. Animation in 1978 was at something of a nadir as up-and-comers were rabidly chasing down the cadaverous corpse of Disney and looking to impose new styles all their own, and in this light the intro of Watership Down feels particularly prescient. Watching the introduction of Watership Down, it’s as if the film chose to begin with a despairing version of the classical American cartoon style – all curvaceous, simple lines and expressively elegant crayon-scrawl – to pay homage to the old before casting about with the new.
The simulacrum-of-Disney scrawl of the introduction, much like a frightening acid-trip variation of children’s literature, is an Aesop Fable of unforgiving harshness that never drips into nihilism or pointless brutality. As with any good fable, threat is counterbalanced by the possibility, although not the assurance, of escape and freedom. Within minutes, however, the introductory prelude is absconded with by a darker, more impressionistic animated style and more tenebrous themes, a fitting shift that denotes both the passage of animation over time and the development of the rabbit species from antediluvian dwellers to modernist society. Teetering on this edge, Watership Down evolves into an eloquent, lachrymose expression of a species constantly confronting its untenable position in modern society.
Masterminded by Martin Rosen based on Richard Adams’ landmark novel, Watership Down eschews the telegraphic representational qualities of something like George Orwell’s Animal Farm – where allegory and symbol trump pulsing, primordial emotions. Instead, a more elemental narrative of cosmic survival tempered with shriveling pensiveness is Rosen’s, and Adams’, call to order. Following
the fastidious Hazel (John Hurt), the furtive, anxious Fiver (Richard Briers), the burly Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), and others as they abandon ship after confronting the terrors of human cataclysm, the rabbits ferret forth in a to-and-fro episodic narrative the evokes their always untethered, never complete quest for home. The film’s inability to evolve beyond parsimonious slips of character growth is itself a lacerating judgment call that expresses the immediacy with which the characters must always uproot and move on. Character development is precious fruit, and the unrelieved peril affords no time for anything other than constant consternation. Story can’t evolve, because the brutality of life doesn’t afford for narrative growth.
The animation vacillates between a plaintive sigh and a more firebrand, bull-in-a-china-shop style in fitful hallucinations of dangers to come. The limited action on screen is accentuated and emblazoned by the watercolor impressionism of the backgrounds which occupy an alternate realm from the more simply drawn characters. A fervent danger arrives in the disturbed discrepancy between character and background, like Snow White dropped in a Terrence Malick film. The disharmony palpably proposes the dangers of characters who visually seem not to belong in the locations they tentatively tread through.
Meanwhile, painterly strokes propose unlimited possibility in external spaces as the land drifts off into a hazy nether far enough in the distance. Paradoxically, this very ethereal quality to the animation also intimates the threat of uncertainty and ambiguity in far off land, inscribing an air of menace in the production only corroborated by the despondent immediacy with which death is never redressed. This is not a world where characters have time to mourn; the escape must continue on. The faded, forlorn nature of the animation drifting off into abstraction around the edges of the frame suggests that the dream of a far away space of survival may be a chimera and nothing more.
The cast of famous names is a dissociative gesture as well, and a remarkable one if viewed through the right lens; the voices seem to float above the rabbits, rather than erupting from the bowels within. Emotional gesticulations are rare; there’s a casual from-the-recording-booth quality to the voices that only corroborates the unease felt by the rabbits, as if their traversal is an out-of-body experience bereft of in-the-trenches emotion. It’s an alienating technique, for sure, but it adds a dose of Badlands-esque mummification wherein the rabbits are unwelcome aliens in their own lives, robbed of their sense of emotional self, and the capacity to emote, in an experience that denounces their very beings and affords them no emotional rescue.
The film has the effect of exhausted melancholy, with a bluntness that denies histrionic emotion and hyperbolic adventure as the two realms of tragedy and escapade are cut down to size, shriveled into toxic, barely-survived quests sans emotional relief. The presentation of humans not as vilified demons but as unthinking, menial machines unable to move beyond set, preordained paths is one with the pastoral sangfroid of a piece stripped of emotion at the gut. It’s not perfect – like Adams’ book, it’s rather notably a boys’ club with females, making the barest appearances, functioning as little more than imaginative reproduction carcasses – but the effect of the movie is undeniable. Even hallucinogenic acid-trip imagery evokes distance more than embodiment, all leading up to a disarmingly abrupt, beautiful work of rabbits perpetually in reconnaissance for not only a physical home but for a stable sense of self.