The demise of Bambi’s mother, the bear fight from The Fox and The Hound, and Mufasa plummeting into a stampede in The Lion King are among some of the most traumatizing moments in the history of kids’ animated feature films. Yet, none of those moments hold a candle to Watership Down, a movie about murder bunnies that has, supposedly, scarred an entire generation. And, when you watch the film today, there’s definitely some truth to what many people will tell you about what they remember. The refrain you’ll hear most often is the notion that Watership Down was a trap: It looked like a cutesy kids movie, but then, the blood started flowing.
Forty-five years after Watership Down first hit theaters in the UK on October 19, 1978, critics and analysts continue to debate whether or not this British masterpiece is appropriate for kids. Earlier this year, the rating for the movie even changed! But, kids in 2023 are not the same kids of 1978, or the 1980s and 1990s. Can families watch Watership Down today, or is it just as traumatizing as it was back then? The answer is complicated. Mild spoilers ahead from 1978.
Watership Down was faithfully adapted from the 1972 novel by Richard Adams, a tale of epic proportions that chronicles a group of rabbits who flee their home from an impending catastrophe, as foretold by Fiver, a runty rabbit with prophetic visions. Led by Hazel, and joined by former rabbit police officer Bigwig (yes, they have an entire law and order society in Watership Down), a small group escapes and seeks a promised land to live and prosper. After narrowly surviving many hardships through Hazel’s cleverness, the herd arrives at a tree atop a hill, which they name “Watership Down.” There, Fiver learns his precognition was correct, and their former warren was destroyed by humans developing real estate above them. In the days that followed, General Woundwart usurped command of the colony, turning it into a totalitarian state. When Bigwig shows up at their previous home to whisk away the oppressed to their new residence, Woundwart takes notice, and a dramatic final battle between fluffles ensues (yes, that’s what a group of bunnies is called).
Simply put, the animation itself is breathtaking for its time. One can marvel at the clusters of British woodland critters moving realistically across softly painted backgrounds reminiscent of a Beatrix Potter, but this is no story of Peter Rabbit dressed in his blue jacket and brass buttons. The film is rife with allegory and metaphor, ranging from the Homeric Odyssey the rabbits endure, to the religious implications of their society, and even contemporary concerns about combatting fascism and tyranny.
What made the movie Watership Down infamous was not the deep themes of its source material, but the graphic imagery. This is no watered-down Disney flick! The savagery of nature is on full display, and this can be unsettling for viewers of all ages, more so since the victims are often cuddly animals some keep as pets. There are scenes with roadkill, and rabbits being plucked from the sky by hawks while others are throttled in a noose-like snare while coughing up blood, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
While the rabbits are overall mild-mannered and cute, the movie has circumstances focused on fatalities. Violent imagery in shows like Power Rangers or Star Wars is very different than the stark implications of one human with a shotgun against a small creature, or even the sharp claws and bites of a wild bunny. The coup de grâce that gained Watership Down its reputation comes towards the conclusion, as a vicious dog enters the climatic fray through Hazel’s cunning and dangerous plan, and the warring faction of bunnies is torn asunder, left in crimson heaps.
When this movie first arrived in 1978, kids had no idea what they were in for until they sat in theater chairs. At the time, the British Board of Film Censors graded the film as appropriate for all ages and found that while there was realistic gore throughout the runtime, it was deemed non-damaging for children. This decision remained under public scrutiny for decades and escalated when a British TV station aired the uncensored film on Easter Sunday in 2016. Who knows what suddenly changed, but again, recently, the BBFC finally changed the rating to the equivalent of a PG in MPAA terms, citing the issues as “...threat, brief bloody images, and language.”
These gruesome moments are enough to offer a strong warning to adults who may want to watch this with their kids. While much of the content is tame for a mature audience, witnessing fields of grass soaked in blood is like a kid-sized version of the elevator scene from The Shining. Even watching a gull (voiced by the imitable Zero Mostel) eat a butterfly could be upsetting for a child who isn’t prepared to see the realities of the animal kingdom, and likewise, the thick and soft-spoken British accents may be difficult for smaller ears to decipher what’s being said.
It's unfortunate that the discourse around this film has centered on the more horrifying aspects of an otherwise amazing film. Watership Down presents the reality of the life cycle in wildlife, where every moment is in high jeopardy, and our rabbit pilgrimage is keen to avoid the grim call of the Black Rabbit of Inlé at every sighting of a hungry badger or cat. Amidst all this intensity, there’s the ever-present threat of mankind, who will “never rest until they spoil the earth.” Contrasting this are some of the more natural and serene moments in the film, which I won’t give away, but there are scenes that beautifully depict the cycle of life that could move a viewer to tears.
No one would expect so many serious themes in a film about cartoon rabbits, but at its core, this self-imposed exodus to a promised land is a trip best considered with discretion. Nature is as pretty as it is savage, and neither the book nor the movie sugarcoats this reality. The messages are dense and varied, and even a child in their double-digits might not be able to fully comprehend what’s going on in the world of high-stakes rabbit politics. But if you and your children are made of sterner stuff and can handle some of the graphic imagery, it’s maybe worth a visit to Watership Down.