There are moments that define our youth. Moments that act like exclamation points at the end of epic sentences. Moments that forever etch themselves into every layer of our subconscious being, even when we don’t realize it. Sometimes those moments stay with us because the are magic, and sometimes, they stay with us because they are tragic. Either way, we know when walking away from those moments that we will never be the same. That, my friends, is exactly how I felt after I walked away from Watership Down.
I can now admit that I saw Watership Down when I was far too young to comprehend it. I was drawn in by the allure of high-quality animation and anthropomorphic animals. The thing is, once I was in that proverbial rabbit hole, I was down too deep to escape. What I thought I would get would be a heartwarming tale about a group of bunnies exiled from their home, looking to find a new one, in what would equate to very Bambi-like adventure. Oh, it had elements from Bambi. Namely, talking animals and death. But that is where the comparisons stopped.
Here, peep the trailer to set the proper tone.
The “ruthless tyranny and brave rebellion” line should have been a clear indicator this was no Disney film.
Yes, I am recommending an animated movie about talking rabbits from 1978 in my 2013 column. Why? Because I genuinely believe this movie is brilliant, and way ahead of its time. Though it may appear a quirky animated film on the surface, this movie introduced me to existentialism. This movie introduced me to politics. This movie introduced me to death. It showed me those things in a way I had never seen before, and I really believe I walked away from the film changed. I hope it has (or had) the same affect on you.
Yes, this happens.
Watership Down is based off a book of the same name (a running theme with my choices that only the best and brightest of you will have picked up on) and the film, though animated, never shies away from the heavy themes in the book. Creationism. Love. Death. Social status. Heaven. Fate. It is all represented by the lupines in this film. Now understand, for me to tell you everything would have you here, reading, for sixty minutes. Honestly, a whole world is created here, with back story and all. I am deliberately not speaking of these things, because the vastness of the movie is half of what makes it so memorable. The incredible animation, spot on voice acting, and relentless storytelling help that, too.
So what is Watership Down actually about?
Very light themes for a cartoon.
The story centers around a vision one of the seers has about the rabbits. An awful, apocalyptic vision. The very end of their being. He then goes with his brother, Hazel, to beg the chief to evacuate the warren (where all the rabbits live). The chief is not into it, so Fiver, Hazel, and seven other rabbits decide to make an exodus themselves, knowing they would rather be proactive than just sit back and wait to die.
This is when shit starts getting gully.
Seriously, this is not a kid’s film. I cannot stress that enough. Kids can see it, and survive (hell, that might even turn out as cool as me), but it will scar them on some level. I feel the need to say that. In the same breath, I don’t think this film is the worst way to introduce death, loss, and adversity to your child. That is your choice to make, but they will learn about all this stuff some day, and believe it or not, seeing cartoons go through it first makes some of the loss they may experience in real life a little more palatable.
It starts off decent enough, but flying predators change that tone quickly.
As you can imagine, once the rabbits leave the warren, things get hairy. Like, real hairy. They slowly learn the threats from the outside world may very well be far worse than what may have been awaiting them back home. I will not get too deeply into the story, who dies, who lives, or what happens. For me to do that is for me to deny you the genuinely moving and harrowing moments this film has to offer.
I will say this.
There is death. Much death. Some of those scenes, and the music and dialogue that accompany them, will be as moving as any movie you have seen that stars actual people. Seriously, I stand behind that comment, proud. This is an undeniably powerful film, that deals with themes that would scare most movies (and most movie goers) away. That is why I know you guys can handle it. You have shown me over the years that you do not shy away from powerful, staggering films. Much like how I take them, the impact of these films never seem to be lost on you, which is why I choose to share the films like that. Films like this. Films like Watership Down. Films that are, in a word, sacred to me.
No, there are no war camp undertones here at all…
But keep in mind, there is a middle stretch of this film that is very much like The Walking Dead comic. Like, everywhere they go and everyone they meet has some nefarious intentions in mind. It really gets very dark, I cannot stress that. The farm scene, for example. I will not say more than that, but as you can see from the pic above, shit gets heavy, and gets there quickly.
Flash forward, these (surviving) rabbits have started their own warren, of which Hazel is now the leader. Again, will not tell you details, but will tell you, the Black Rabbit scenes are something you will never forget. Also, as I am sure you can imagine by now, the final scenes of this film hits you right in the feels, and stay there for a long, long time. Almost thirty years for me.
Truth is, I only truly realized the impact this film had on me the other day, when I looked across my living room. See that pic just below this paragraph? That is my best buddy, Beatbox. He lives like a king, as you can see. Keeping him safe and happy is a big part of my life now, and I really think that has more to do with Watership Down than I would ever admit. Wait, I guess I just admitted it.
See, even that Remy weirdo has a heart.