Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lots of dead rabbits

Last night I watched two movies, though it was more like watching ten movies. They were Watership Down and Genius Party.

I will preface this post by saying that both of these movies are pretty fucked up. They are, however, fucked up in very different ways. For now, I will save Genius Party for a later post's discussion, where I will also discuss a few other assemblies of short films, which are popular in Japan at the moment but also are cropping up in the form of movies such as Fears of the Dark, a collection of French black-and-white animated shorts.

But for now, let's start with the British animation, Watership Down.

Okay seriously, where do I begin.

You could well be forgiven for hating this movie. Technically it's a masterpiece, but it is so confronting that audience alienation is at some point almost inevitable.
See the thing is, this movie looks deceptively cute. It's a story about a bunch of bunny rabbits. The backgrounds are rendered softly with watercolours, it has a quaint British feel, and has a large cast of rabbits full of personality.
That said and done, this is a terrifying film and it is not for children. I speak from experience because I saw it when I was very young (about five) and didn't see it again until last night. Nonetheless I have been having nightmares about particular scenes from the film to this day.

(Wondering what this is? It's a bunch of rabbits trying to get out of a burrow which is blocked by the dead bodies of other rabbits. Be sure to get a DVD for your kids today!)

The story (which is surprisingly complex and multi-layered for a seventies animated feature) tells of Hazel and his mad brother Fiver, who are sick of living in their warren with the other rabbits when suddenly Fiver has an omen of the hill nearby overflowing with blood. So we're off to a good start.
Before you know it, they round up a motley crew of other rabbits who wish to leave (the main thrust of the exodus being Fiver's terrible omen), and embark on a series of incredibly horrific adventures where they are hunted by virtually every form of predatory fauna in the United Kingdom, including west-country farmers.
Once they have braved the dangers of these predatory animals, they must contend with a sinister, almost faschist organisation of rabbits that they have stolen does from. These other rabbits are fucking viscious and probably scarier than any of the other animals in the film.

The movie was based on a book by Richard Adams, and I think it would be more palatable as a book than a movie for children. One of Anthony Burgess' complaints about the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of A Clockwork Orange was that unspeakable violence was a lot easier to digest in text than it was to view it on screen, and upon watching this movie I knew exactly what he meant.

So what exactly is good about this film? Well, in my humble opinion, just about everything.
While not superb to say, Disney standards, the animation in the film was quite good. There were no 'mistakes', and there was a vast amount of attention to detail to make the animals' movements naturalistic. Really the only thing bringing the animation down is a number of 'quickstarts' and 'quickstops' to the motion of the characters that may have benefited from some cushioning.
Anthropomorphism has been used to a minimum here, giving it a different feel to just about every other 'animal' animation I have watched.
The score was stirring and appropriate. The Art Garfunkle 'Bright Eyes' song should have felt out of place - indeed, that was my first thought - but I found myself fighting tears by the end of the song. The determination of Fiver is nothing short of tear jerking.

In terms of the story, it was bold and ballsy, and despite being quite 'in your face' with one disturbing catastrophe after another, I was glad to see a film from so long ago that had a story to tell and was determined to tell it no matter what. It's sure as hell not a film I'd be showing my children in a hurry, but ironically it is the epitome of what I would consider 'adult animation'. Not animations with lots of sex and gore and foul language, but an animation that was meant for grown men and women to enjoy.
Clearly, the investors (of which there were many) were very progressive thinkers in wishing to fund this project which was so wholeheartedly outside of the accepted animation norm back in 1978.
Apparently it made a killing, which goes to show that sometimes progressive animations can actually be successful.

We need more risk-taking. We need more "fuck you"s to the Disney model. I mean I like Disney movies as much as the next animation nut, but the stories are so weak, so boneless, so driven by formula. If you bitchslap them they will be in a wheelchair for life.
I'm not saying kids animation should be like Watership Down. Heavens no. But that doesn't mean animation plots shouldn't have a little more goddamn thought put into them.


  1. Firstly, before you start on Genius Party I think you'd might want to listen to some of the director commentaries on the second disc, unless you're going for a more "first account" documentation, I don't know. It's kind of odd that I'm finding the "Limit Cycle" segment to be my favourite, sort of like what "Beyond" is to the Animatrix.

    As for Watership Down, I'm still unable to understand the story completely, and perhaps the book might explain a few things better. Fiver had this hunch that everyone should leave. Even though it turns out he was right, I still don't understand the psychology of the rabbits who decided to follow him. The chief asked Fiver why and he said "I don't know!" and then the chief asked "Where should we go?" and Fiver said "I'm not sure!". Later Bigwig catches up to them and says "I thought about what you said and I've decided to come along!"

    I really don't get it. I wonder if there's supposed to be some spiritual implication, since the rabbits seem to have their own religion, that maybe Fiver is some sort of a prophet? It felt kind of vague.

  2. Good point, I didn't really think of that. You're right, it's probably a lot clearer in the book. I guess I got swept up in it because as is demonstrated with Hazel and Fiver right at the beginning, it seems that life in the warren is pretty shitty anyway and they would take any excuse to get out.
    It fits with the rest of them but the Bigwig party-joining was a little out of character from what we'd seen, well observed.
    But hey, at least they got the bad storytelling out of the way at the beginning. Sounds like a weak defense but nothing irks me more than a limp-wristed ending or unmotivated final confrontation.

    As for Genius Party, I would be more than happy to watch the director's commentaries, as well as Genius Party Beyond, before posting on short-compilations. I have found through trial and error on this blog that I prefer to review films with as much context as possible.

  3. My mother fell for the "deceptively cute" bit and bought this movie for me when I was seven. I know people joke about being scarred for life but I honestly think this movie has left a deep terrible imprint in my mind. Just looking at these screenshots made me cringe.

    As for your review itself, it's really quite good and I can understand how people would think this is a good movie. It almost makes me want to watch it again, to see if I can appreciate it now that I'm older and more mature (and certainly more desensitized to gore)

  4. I giggled at your comment and I agree. I'd recommend a fresh viewing, as you know what to expect now and, as you said, you will have been desensitised by age and experience.

  5. we had to watch this movie as an assignment is seventh grade chorus class for the teacher's monthly brainpicking 8D

    the whole situation was epic win.

    I don't particularly REMEMBER much of the movie cuz obviously it's been a while, but your blog brings back memories lol. It was definitely a weird movie for a seventh grade chorus class, I think I may have been one of the only people to truly appreciate it at the time lD

  6. Still haven't seen Watership Down but I've seen Plague Dogs which is by the same people. When I picked up the DVD I thought to myself, "A STORY ABOUT DOGS. YAY."
    Hehehe that was no All Dogs go to Heaven. I'm still disturbed by the ending.