[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a â€œBlack Rabbitâ€ of death, a sort of grim leaper.
The animation is attractive and exciting, a few jerky pans notwithstanding; but this adult cartoon lacks the power to touch its audience very deeply. Despite its carefully built-up world, its own achievement is never one of mythmaking, but only of satisfying moments: the antics of Kehaar, a feisty Germanic seagull; the last great act of defiance of the harsh old rabbit General Woundwort, hurling himself violently at an enormous mastiff; the sudden death of a little bunny snatched up by a hawk, and Pipkinâ€™s sad whisper, â€œVioletâ€™s goneâ€; the fate of the rabbits trapped in the old warren when the bulldozers come, filling in the burrows, sealing them inside, and the claustrophobic look and feel of the flashback narrated by the lone survivorâ€”these are skillfully realized images, and for all his greater fame, Ralph Bakshi could learn a thing or two from them. Nevertheless, itâ€™s still going to take more than a few nice pictures and a bestselling novel as storyline to create a truly adult-oriented cinema of animation.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Screenplay, direction, and production: Martin Rosen, after the novel by Richard Adams. Animation supervision: Philip Duncan. Animation direction: Tony Guy. Editing: Terry Rawlings. Music: Angela Morley, Mike Batt, Malcolm Williamson.
Voices: John Hurt, John Bennett, Roy Kinnear, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews.