Bunnies' beliefs tested

Charming journey to a promised land

Published: Apr 05 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, May 11, 1979
WATERSHIP DOWN. Feature-length animated cartoon fantasy based on the 1972 novel by Richard Adams. Music by Angela Morley. Written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen. Running time: 101 minutes. General entertainment with no B.C. Classifier's warnings.
I SOMETIMES WONDER IF WALT Disney really knew what he was getting into. The acknowledged grandmaster of the animated movie, Disney also managed to bring about a revolution in amusement park construction and, perhaps inadvertently, laid the foundations for the modem ecology movement.
    A case can be made, I think, for calling Disney the father of present day [1979] eco-consciousness. The avuncular old producer (or, at least, his movies) seems to have made the whole thing possible.
    It began with the likes of 1942's Bambi and Song of the South's Br'er Rabbit (1946), and continued into the era of the True Life Adventures — documentary features such as 1953's The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie (1954), The African Lion (1955) and Secrets of Life (1956) — and television's visits to Adventureland in the mid-1950s.
    The children that grew up with such entertainment became a generation of environmentally aware adults. (I know one local television producer who refuses to eat venison. "It would be too much like eating Bambi," she once told me.)
    These same adults would take a book like Richard Adams's Watership Down and make it an international bestseller. Now, with the release of the film version, the process comes full circle.
    After considerable delay (the picture was originally scheduled to open here January 19), Watership Down has arrived in Vancouver. It is a charming, often beautiful film, one that recalls the richness of Disney's classic period, although it is not a product of the Disney studios.
    Watership Down is not, as the name seems to imply, the story of a sunken submarine. It is, rather, the tale of a journey to a promised land undertaken by a handful of brave British bunnies.
    They are The Believers.
    What they believe in is the Apocalyptic vision of a nervous little clairvoyant named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers). He senses what soon comes to pass — the destruction of Sandleford Warren. Their home is about to be bulldozed out of existence to make room for a human housing development.
    Adams's novel traced the adventures of Fiver, his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) and their companions as they made their way to a new and better warren high atop a hill called Watership Down. En route, they face a variety challenges to their faith and ingenuity.
    Like the recent Lord of the Rings adaptation, Watership Down is designed for adult audiences. Producer-director Martin Rosen attempts to show us a range of emotions that are true, if not to real rabbits, then at least to Adams's literary creations.
    Thus, the fantasy contains some realistic violence and villainy, as well as a measure of death and destruction.
    Though designed and detailed in the manner of the best Disney features, Rosen's picture was made in England. A highly motivated team of British and American animators have provided it with backgrounds that are a series of lovingly crafted landscapes.
    In the foreground, the animal players have been crafted with the kind of careful attention to character and movement that helps audiences to willingly suspend disbelief and become genuinely involved with the rabbits' odyssey.
    Helping to make it work are some superb voice characterizations, performances provided by actors such as Hurt, Sir Ralph Richardson (as the Chief Rabbit), Harry Andrews (General Woundwort), Denholm Elliott (Cowslip) and the late Zero Mostel (as a seagull named Kehaar).
    The film opens with a highly stylized look at the rabbit version of Genesis. We are introduced to Lord Frith (Michael Hordern), the Creator. We see the First Rabbit, El-ahrairah, fall from grace and meet The Black Rabbit (Joss Ackland), otherwise known as Death. Then it's on to the story.
    Except for an awkward musical interlude — a syrupy Art Garfunkel ballad that the producer hoped would win a best song Academy Award — the picture is smartly paced and solidly crafted.
    As with the Disney classics, Watership Down is good enough and timeless enough to become a perennial. I wouldn't be surprised to see it return again and again, recycling through to delight new audiences and renew old acquaintances.

The above is a restored version of a Vancouver Express review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: In a 2007 BBC Radio interview, Watership Down author Richard Adams emphatically denied that his book contained anything like a parody of or parallels to any religious beliefs. Taking him at his word, I'll say that El-ahrairah is not to be taken for the Easter Bunny. Last Wednesday (April 1), Time magazine tantalized Internet browsers with the headline "What's the origin of the Easter Bunny?", then dodged the question, saying that "the exact origins of the Easter bunny are clouded in mystery." It provided a hyperlink to an equally evasive History.com that hedged its answer with "according to some sources . . ."  Less of a mystery is the fact that Easter, in common with that other annual religious celebration, Christmas, is linked to a celestial event. Just as the Saviour's official birthday occurs at the time of the Winter Solstice, the day of His resurrection, Easter Sunday,  is tied to the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox. In developing its liturgical calendar, the Catholic Church was mindful of popular observances, and may have appropriated a pre-existing Saxon festival honouring Eostre, the Teutonic Spring Goddess. She was the one who brought fertility back to the land, and whose symbol was a rabbit. Apparently her followers also coloured eggs. None of this was mentioned in Time's mystery-clouded "answer," perhaps because Eostre's existence remains a matter of historic dispute. Not in dispute is the fact that the modern Easter Bunny, like our modern Santa Claus, is a creation of our mass-market economy, specifically the corporate confectioners. In 1950, he got his own song, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, and has specialized in selling chocolate treats ever since.
    Originally a theatrical agent, Martin Rosen made his first foray into filmmaking as the producer of the 1966 Canadian feature A Great Big Thing, the largely unseen directorial debut of Eric Till. He had considerably better luck with his second production choice, the much-honoured Ken Russell feature Women In Love (1969). He began work on 1978's Watership Down as its producer, but found himself in the director's chair when the innovative animator John Hubley took ill and died. The animated feature's success encouraged him to adapt, produce and directed a second Richard Adams novel, The Plague Dogs (1982). He returned to simply producing with director Joyce Chopra's live action feature Smooth Talk (1985), and then directed his first live-action feature, 1987's Stacking, a rural drama that starred Canada's Megan Follows.