Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a masterful epic about rabbits, occupies a space somewhere between The Wind in the Willows and The Once and Future King, though it is more naturalistic and less whimsical than either. Gratifyingly true both to the letter and the spirit of Adams’ novel, the 1978 British animated adaptation written and directed by Martin Rosen is a singular achievement in English-language animation: a thematically and emotionally rich cartoon about talking animals, untouched by sentiment and cutesiness.
Like Disney’s Bambi, Watership Down is based on a tough-minded, sometimes violent novel that is more an anthropomorphic interpretation of animal life than a tale of fully anthropomorphic animals. Adams’ influences included Animal Farm, Gulliver’s Travels and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but also The Private Life of the Rabbit by British naturalist Ronald Lockley, with its eye-opening accounts of leporine violence.
Unlike Bambi, Watership Down has not been Disneyfied in the retelling. The Disney magic was at a low ebb in 1978, a year that saw another ambitious, mature-toned animated adaptation of a perennially bestselling 20th-century British epic: Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. Bakshi’s project is a gallant failure, a victim of his sprawling source material; Rosen’s is a low-key success. He can only offer a sampling of Adams’ hefty book, but he made shrewd choices in editing and rearranging material, and it’s a satisfying sampling that works well in its own right, and even better as a companion to the novel.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.