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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pixar movies look like child’s play compared to Watership Down

Illustration for article titled Pixar movies look like child’s play compared to Watership Down

Every day, Watch Thisoffers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The sequel Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters has us reflecting on stellar kid-lit adaptations.


Watership Down (1978)

There has never been a more uncompromising producer of animated children’s fare than Martin Rosen’s Nepenthe Productions. The American-born, U.K.-based Rosen directed only two animated features, both of them based on animal adventure novels by Richard Adams, and they are like nothing seen before or since. When people talk about Pixar features as if they’re the height of maturity in children’s films, I want to sit them right down and make them watch Watership Down or The Plague Dogs. Either would leave them sucking their thumbs in the fetal position.

The first and somewhat better known of the two, Watership Down,is more or less The Aeneid with bunnies, and it instantly announces itself as anything but a typical kids’ feature. The prologue is a highly stylized Genesis story in which the great god Frith creates all the animals (who look like animated Inuit art), then gives a disproportionate number of them the desire to hunt and slay rabbits. “All the world will be your enemy, Prince Of A Thousand Enemies,” says Frith to a rabbit-world equivalent of Adam. “And whenever they catch you, they will kill you.” Things actually get darker from there. Switching to a more naturalistic, water-colored palette, the film introduces modern-day rabbits Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and Fiver (Richard Briers) grazing with other members of their warren. Fiver is prone to psychic visions, and when he looks out across the field he sees it covered in blood. Neither he nor Hazel know what we know—that the warren is due to be plowed over—and yet they gather together as many rabbits as will join them and head off on an epic, perilous journey to find a new home somewhere else. Quite a few of them do not survive.

A handful of children’s films actually have the power to make those who watch them grow, and Watership Down, with its moments of brutal Darwinian violence and overarching mood of sadness and loss, forces young viewers to rise up to it. The movie says, essentially, “You need to know these things now. You’re old enough.” After it was over, the whole world felt somehow sadder to me, and lonelier. The trade-off, of course, was that I’d been shown something previously hidden, something I would have to learn about sooner or later anyway. That’s the conundrum of all the best children’s films: They help you to leave childhood behind.

Availability: A couple of DVDs, one of which is available through Netflix’s disc delivery service.