This week, the Criterion Collection releases Watership Down, Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel. It’s one of the few animated films in the collection to date, but don’t go gathering up the kids, movie nerds — from the moment little Fiver gets his apocalyptic vision, wherein “The field… the field… it’s covered with blood!,” it’s very clear that this is one cartoon that’s not for the kiddies. But it’s also a terrific movie, reminding us that too often, the seemingly malleable form of the animated feature film is consigned to family entertainment and left there. Here are a few notable exceptions.
The rabbits in Watership Down spend most of the film at risk of attack (from dogs, birds, rats, cats, pretty much every other animal); it’s full of graphic bloodshed, deaths, and near-deaths; and much of the imagery is outright nightmare fuel. It ain’t Bugs Bunny, in other words — it’s an unrelentingly grim, bleak political parable. It’s also involving, frequently harrowing storytelling, a journey film of undeniable tension (the sequence in a seemingly abandoned warren is brilliant) and surprising pathos. The animation is utilitarian at best and cheap at worst, like the cutout style of late-‘70s Saturday morning cartoons, but it’s oddly effective — placing this story in the stylistic realm of our childhood comfort television, and then using that sense of comfort to bludgeon us over the head.