The Horrors of Watership Down

There was a time, in the late 70s and into the 80s, where movies for children just plain became really, really dark. Films like The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story are noticeably different from the happy-go-lucky kid's fare of the later years, and even the king of animation, Disney, had some real downer movies like The Rescuers, The Great Mouse Detective, and the super-king of all depressing movies that don't involve baby deer, The Fox and the Hound. Somewhere out of this string of depression came a film that, at first glance, couldn't possibly be that bad. A movie about bunnies, right? What could go wrong?


I mean, take a look at the cover art:

But there's a problem. See, Watership Down isn't a movie about bunnies. It's a movie about rabbits. It's based upon a novel by Richard Adams, and it tells the story of a group of rabbits as they try and survive in a world where everything is trying to kill them. It's a fantastic book, it does a good job of trying to show what the world looks like at the bottom of the food chain. But, hey, they've cleaned up other books for animated films. So how bad could it be?

Let's take a look.


Things start off with a short little story that's pretty much the rabbit creation myth. Rabbits used to be best friends with everyone, up until Frith (rabbit for "The Sun", or just "God" if you prefer) told them to quit screwing cause they were overpopulating the world with rabbits and leaving no grass for the other animals to eat. El-ahriarah (or "Bunny Jesus") told him no, and Frith responds in a completely expected way.


He gives every other animal in the world a gift - and the desire to eat rabbits. So, not two minutes in, we're treated to a jaunty montage of the world's predators mauling some peaceful bunnies as they nibble on grass. Frith then turns around and gives rabbits the tools they need to survive (big feet for leaping and running, digging, cunning, and overall cuteness), the lesson being that, "When a god tells you directly to do something, don't flip him off and say 'no'". Good advice for real life, by the way.


Once the opening story ends, the movie shifts to a more traditional animation style, with some really weird art close-ups, like that bunny-eye in the opening shot. A credits sequence with deceptively tranquil music plays, and then things get going. Standard fare to start, with bigger bunnies bullying little ones, and young Hazel and his brother Fiver are kind of tired of it. Fiver is particularly nervous this evening, and soon, after finding a man-made sign, we learn he's actually a prophet. How do we learn this?


He has a vision of the field being covered in blood, and a whole bunch of other trippy things that, quite honestly, can't be conveyed in screenshots. Picture what you think a bad acid trip would look like (or if you've had one, remember it). Fiver absolutely freaks out, and says that everyone has to leave tonight. Hazel, apparently used to this sort of behavior, brings him to see the chief of the warren. Bunny leadership is, not surprisingly, not keen on the idea of leaving because of an unknown "bad danger". Particularly during mating season.


Apparently not having many mating prospects, Hazel and a small group of friends decide to make a run for it and leave in the middle of the night (which, as you can see by the sign there, turns out to be a good idea). They're joined by Bigwig, the guard who let them in to see the chief, and soon they're confronted by Holly, the leader of the Owsla (they're kind of the "bunny cops"). Holly's going to take them in, and Hazel replies with this:



The way this line is said, and the intent behind it, has kind of a chilling effect. It's not a threat. It's not a boast. It's not an intimidation tactic. It's simply stating a fact, and it letting you know, in a very direct way, that these are not people in bunny suits with human beliefs and morals and the idea that killing is a last resort. It's your first real warning that you're in for some serious shit.

Unfortunately, Hazel can't back his words up.



Luckily, Bigwig can, and Holly takes off as the rest of the rabbits escape. They make their way into a forest, which is not really a safe place for rabbits to be at night. The dark forest is kinda creepy, but, really, it's not that bad. We've all seen a creepy forest. Suddenly...SURPRISE BADGER!



Yeah, it tries for the cheap "Resident Evil" scare on you. And fails hard. If it wasn't such a silly looking badger, it...still wouldn't work. Anyways, the badger ("lendri" in bunny-speak) moves on and so do the rabbits, until they get to a river. The smaller rabbits are too tired to swim across, but there's a dog coming and they need to cross now. Hazel refuses to leave anyone behind, and one of the rabbits hits upon the amazing concept of "floating" and uses a piece of driftwood to get them across. They then come across a road, where Bigwig explains how the "hrududu", or car, runs down it at fantastic speeds but pretty much ignores them. They decide to rest in a field of planes. Just some lighter, humorous moments, you know, to break up the tension. Aside from that roadkilled hedgehog.



They finally stop to rest in a field of plants, where they're safe for a little while. One of the rabbits, named Violet, wakes up first, and decides to have a dandelion for lunch, outside of the cover of the bean plants. Fiver, sleeping on the edge, wakes up just in time to see this:



...annnnnnnd Violet's gone.


Pay attention, Surprise Badger, this is how you scare the crap out of kids. This scene is TRULY disturbing, since it comes out of nowhere. The youngest, most panicky rabbit gets to watch as in the matter of a second, a hawk screeches, a rabbit squeals, and boom, one dead bunny. And here's the kicker - this scene wasn't in the book. Neither was Violet, for that matter. Yes, you're understanding this right, the people who made this movie went out of their way to create a brand new character for the movie, for no other reason than to add this scene in and kill her off in a pointlessly disturbing manner. Not to spare another character this fate or anything like that, just to put in a scene where a bunny is killed by a hawk. Someone went out of their way to make this decision. That person is one sick bastard.

Anyways, Violet is promptly forgotten, and the rest of the gang moves on, ending up in a graveyard, where they get into a fight with some rats and an owl that is, for some reason, played up for laughs...the movie sometimes suffers from some serious mood whiplash. They escape, then move on to a field, and everyone is sick and tired of traveling, when suddenly, another rabbit shows up.



His name is Cowslip, and he invites the group to stay with them, claiming that they have plenty of empty burrows. Fiver wants nothing to do with the foppish rabbit, but everyone else is more interested in shelter and a place to stay. It turns out that Cowslip here is the leader of the Emo-bunnies, who get fed lettuce and carrots by a nearby human and aren't very keen on answering questions about themselves. After a rather depressing bout of poetry, Fiver's had enough of the Emo-bunnies, and is ready to take off on his own when Bigwig comes out to chew him out and mock him and even manages to drop in a dirty word in bunny language (yes, there's a whole bunny language, and Bigwig yells "shit!" at Fiver in it. It's "hraka" if you want to bother using it yourself). He then hops off through a bush, and, well, it's been nearly 10 minutes since we've injured or killed a bunny...


Bigwig is caught in a snare, and we're treated to about two minutes of a bunny choking to death in a snare, while his mouth gets bloodier and bloodier, while the rest of the rabbits manage to dig the peg out and free him. It appears it's too late, though...Bigwig's death is treated with a bit more concern by the group, Fiver points out the scheme - the human feeds the rabbits in the warren, keeps away predators, but snares the surrounding area, and the Emo-bunnies adapted to this way of life, being safe from everything but the occasional snare...and they figured that the more people with them, the less likely one of them gets snared. This part of the story is sort of glossed over in the movie. The book actually goes into a bit of detail about this place, it's a bit more disturbing there, and they even pick up a new rabbit who leaves with them. But no such luck here, as now we're down two rabbits...



Nope, never mind. Bigwig's alive, and they all decide to leave for those hills Fiver keeps talking about. They continue on, and for some unexplained reason Hazel wants to check out a farm. He chats with some bunnies in a hutch about them joining up with him, but a cat shows up. He and Pipkin (a small rabbit he took with him) confront a real bitch of a cat, and in a surprising twist for this movie, manage to escape unscathed. This scene actually happens later in the book, and when it does, it makes perfect sense. Here, though, it's just Hazel screwing around for no reason, which is kind of out of character for him (Hazel runs risks, just not stupid risks).


Later on, in a ditch, the rabbits hear a ghostly voice calling out "zorn!" (bunny-talk for a catastrophe), and calling out Bigwig's name. Bigwig, the big tough bunny, is a bit freaked, thinking it's the Black Rabbit of Death, but Hazel keeps his head. Turns out, it's Holly, the bunny cop from the beginning of the movie, and he's looking...a little messed up.



He then goes on to describe, in rabbit perspective, just what happened to the old warren. Let's listen in, shall we?



...well, hraka. For those with no imagination, that's a rabbit warren being gassed, and then dug up with a backhoe.

Again, screenshots just can't capture how terrifying some of this stuff is. There's a few more survivors in the book, showing again the cartoon is far more bloodthirsty than the novel. It's still a pretty gruesome chapter.

Anyway, Holly's not done traumatizing us yet. After explaining that men just did it cause the rabbits were in the way and how we're spoiling the planet, he mentions how the Efrafans wouldn't let him go. Efrafa (again, something that doesn't come up until later in the book) is a warren run like a police state. The place is overcrowded, and Holly recalls a young female rabbit named Hyzenthlay asking to be allowed to leave since they can't produce rabbit babies (rabbits actually won't give birth in an overcrowded setting, Richard Adams did his research), and being flat-out told no. Holly also explains that the reason he's messed up is because the Efrafans wouldn't let him leave. We'll find out more about them later on.


Anyways, the journey is finally over as they reach the hill the movie is named for, Watership Down (a real fact, every location is an actual location in England). The bunnies make themselves at home, and soon meet the most awesome character in the story: Keehar.


Keehar is a seagull with an awesome drunk Russian accent, and doesn't have a high opinion of rabbits. Or censors, for that matter.


He was ambushed by the bitch-cat we met earlier, and has a broken wing, and the rabbits are willing to help him out. He reluctantly accepts. Which is nice, since Keehar is a touch of levity in what has been, so far, a pretty damn depressing tale. But why is Hazel so keen on helping him? Well, it turns out, they've got a problem. They don't have any does with them. If they don't get some, the warren dies out with them. This is actually why Hazel visited the farm earlier, though domesticated rabbits aren't ideal breeding stock for wild rabbits.

Now, the book, and thus the movie (and thus this article), are pretty much divided into two halves. The first half deals with the exodus from their original warren to Watership Down, which was fraught with enough peril and adventure to fill a fantasy novel. But now that we've made it, there's a distinct shift in focus on a couple of fronts. The driving force isn't immediate survival but long-term survival, and more interestingly, the character focus shifts away from waifish Fiver (he's pretty much done with the story), and onto the big, aggressive Bigwig.

Or in short, the second half of this cartoon story about bunnies is the hero bunnies looking to get laid, and guess who's gonna be their literal and figurative wingman?

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