Watership Down: Politics Through Animation

Watership Down (1978)
Warner Bros./Nepenthe Productions
Starring the voice talents of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Zero Mostel
Not Rated
Running Time = 92 minutes
Available Now

Allegory – a story in which people, things, and happenings have a hidden or symbolic meaning: allegories are used for teaching or explaining ideas, moral principles, etc.

And again, another vocab lesson has passed. Read on.

Remember 2-D animation? Yes, there was a time when animated movies were drawn and painted by hand, without the assistance of computers. It’s a complex process that employs hundreds of hours of work and detail. The end result is a series of moving drawings on the screen.

This, of course, was before Dreamworks brought us Shrek and Kung-Fu Panda. Before Disney teamed with Pixar to deliver Toy Story, The Incredibles, and WALL-E. While 2-D animation still exists today, its use in the cinema has become minimized.

An adaptation of the renowned Richard Adams novel, Watership Down is a time capsule from the world of cel animation. Many students in high school have probably read the book, much like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In both cases, the animated versions of both have also been viewed in classrooms across America.

The story: A group of rabbits escape from their warren (home), only to find even greater dangers as they travel to a new location. The group must battle against, man, dogs, cars, and even other rabbits who hinder their progress toward a new life.

Like Animal Farm, Watership Down is an allegory (definition above) for politics and its power to corrupt. The rabbit refugees flee their doomed warren only to encounter a police state where rabbits are marked and live in fear. Orwell did a similar thing with his animal cast speaking against totalitarianism.

My primary issue with the film, not that it has anything to do with the actual production, is that I felt like I was in class. I felt like we had just finished reading the novel and were now going to watch (and take notes) on the film for our next compare/contrast essay. The movie just had that classroom-watching feel to it.

I’m used to Disney animation. Clean, crisp, elegant. The animation here feels clunky. The character’s voices don’t sync with their mouths. It was frustrating to watch because of this issue.

It’s also quite violent (warning to parents). Rabbits die. Blood flows.

Kids may find this animated film a bit boring. It’s not as colorful and frenetic as a Shrek or Incredibles. It also delivers a strong message about government that would cause most kids’ eyes to gloss over.

If you enjoyed the book, you’ll like the film. Is it as good? No. But you’ll be able to see how a group of filmmakers interpreted Adams’s work from the page to the screen.

Watership Down hops its way to a C. Read the book, if you have a choice. Watch the film if you have a book report due and haven’t even opened the book.

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