Review: The Legacy of Watership Down: Animals, Adaptation, Animation
Animated fantasy film Watership Down (Martin Rosen,1978) represents something of a critical cultural conundrum that underwrites its complex status as a children’s feature. On the one hand, this hand-drawn fable - that follows a cross-countryside journey made by a colony of rabbits - represents the best of British animation, with an impressive voice cast (featuring John Hurt, Richard Briers, Simon Cadell and Nigel Hawthorne) giving life to a beautifully evocative cel-animated style that fully demonstrates the pre-digital artistry of paint-and-ink animation production. On the other hand lies its well-established identity as an emotionally traumatic experience, one that trades in themes of political uprising, Fascism and grief, all the while being scored to graphic images of blood, gore, and death. Writing in Film Comment, Daniel Filipi is certainly not alone in suggesting that Martin Rosen’s film “left its indelible mark on a generation of kids whose unsuspecting parents assumed that an animated film meant harmless children's fare” (2015: 76). It is this tension between form and content ingrained into the heart of Watership Down that provided the subject matter for the recent one-day symposium celebrating its fortieth anniversary, held on Saturday 10th November at the University of Warwick’s Wolfson Research Exchange Centre (Fig. 1). Organised by Catherine Lester (University of Birmingham), The Legacy of Watership Down: Animals, Adaptation, Animation rightly paid its dues to the film’s slippery and difficult-to-pin-down status in its line-up of topics, with papers covering a range of issues relating to its production and reception, animated animality and anthropomorphism, genre and film sound, style and technology, ethics and violence, and death and mourning. Yet in many ways, Watership Down’s notorious acts of violence were revealed by all the speakers to be nothing more than a smokescreen that has historically gotten in the way of good old academic rigour. There is so much more to say about Watership Down, and as a result the conference did more than just celebrate the film’s underground or ‘cult’ status; or rehearse the default view surrounding its questionable rating for child audiences; or even lapse into the ‘same old’ questions of animation’s cultural standing as a medium for children. Rather, each speaker (individually, and in accumulation) presented a highly convincing argument for Rosen’s film to be considered a genuine animated milestone beyond the restrictions of its familiar historical-cultural narrative, and it is a credit to all those involved that such a smooth-running event (not easy) was matched with stellar line-up of papers (really not easy) that took on Watership Down with such scholarly gusto.
The conference’s keynote was a joint affair - spearheaded by Chris Pallant (Canterbury Christ Church University), but accompanied by the thoughts, stories and memories of Nigel and Klive Humberstone, whose father Arthur was senior animator on Watership Down, as well as working on Rosen’s later animated feature film The Plague Dogs (Martin Rosen, 1982) and The BFG (Brian Cosgrove, 1989) for British animation studio Cosgrove Hall. Pallant drew particularly from his own archival research into the industry of storyboarding (recently published in the form of a co-authored book with Steven Price, titled Storyboarding: A Critical History) as a way of thinking through the educational value of studying creative practice. Supported by images from the animation archive (Watership Down design sheets, character studies and script-heavy storyboard examples), Pallant proposed storyboards as important cultural heritage, available to researchers and students to assist with teaching, but also vital within these same pedagogical contexts (those who work with such artefacts are wider champions and custodians of production material more broadly). Pallant reminded us that if archives are vital teaching tool available in a multitude of educational contexts, then archival documents only take us so far, and we need to think further about what to do as researchers and students. Nigel and Klive’s contributions as part of the keynote provided a more personal reflection on the trials and tribulations of animation production (Fig. 2), with the status of animation as an industrial art form wonderfully underwritten with their anecdotal accounts. There was also a screening of behind-the-scenes film footage from Arthur Humberstone’s personal collection, which gave a fascinating insight into the very labour (and fashions) involved in the production of Watership Down in the early-1970s.
The first panel maintained the discussion of animated labour central to the keynote presentation, yet did so by threading Watership Down’s questionable classification as a children’s film through its own chaotic journey from storyboard to screen. Llewella Chapman (University of East Anglia) and James Chapman (University of Leicester) qualified their understanding of Rosen’s film as “troubled production” by examining the materials held at the Film Finances Archives in relation to Film Finances Ltd. who specialise in ‘guarantees of completion’ for features so that they will be completed on time (and under budget). One particularly illuminating area of focus was the contribution to Rosen’s film made by John Hubley, a former Disney animator during the American Golden Age of cartooning (and later at United Productions of America) who was effectively fired from the production, though some of his work remains in the finished film. Discussing critical and popular responses to Watership Down’s highly controversial ‘U’ rating, Emily Fussell from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) next plotted the film’s initial submission to the board in 1978 (where there were only three categories of ‘U’, ‘A’ and ‘X’) alongside its relationship to today’s rating system, which is more sophisticated at the lower end. Fussell’s paper touched on many of the critical questions that have enveloped the study of animation’s rhetorical capabilities as a medium of expression, and its dual ability to both dilute salacious content (providing a veneer or masquerade of acceptability that preserves it as ‘just for children’) and simultaneously accentuate such content through its commitment to graphical inscription (to ‘draw’ an idea is to announce and exaggerate that same idea). The decision by Channel 5 to broadcast Watership Down on consecutive Easter Sundays in 2016 and 2017 (it was also shown on 27th December 2014 at 2.45pm), coupled with its more recent appearance in the schedules on the same channel only a month ago (at 3.10am on 30th October 2018), reflects the film’s shifting cultural standing, if not how critics and audiences are still seemingly at a loss as to how to fully reconcile its graphic depiction of animal cruelty with the medium in which it is being presented.
Panel 2 (Fig. 4) took as its focus the intersection of animals and anthropomorphism, areas that have a longstanding relationship to the development of the animated medium and its formation of a particular kind of humanlike character (explained at length in Paul Wells’ 2009 book on the subject, The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture). The first speaker, Lisa Mullen (Worcester College, Oxford University), outlined how anthropomorphism’s fundamental engagement with the body positioned animals as characters with much allegorical and ideological ‘work’ to do. However, the symbolic status of animated animals as vessels for politicised representation was, for Mullen, problematised by animation’s familiar anthropomorphic register, which favours more capitalist-influence hierarchies of animal distinctiveness and leadership rather than a more Marxist image of a Utopic community. The interplay between animation, anthropomorphism and analogy remains less than clear-cut, and Mullen argued how the reactionary political impulses of Watership Down (and indeed Animal Farm [John Halas & Joy Batchelor, 1954 ]) are in a reciprocal and often fractured relationship with the quasi-humanity of anthropomorphic characters. Noel Brown (Liverpool Hope University) next discussed Watership Down within the context of British Children’s cinema of the 1970s (exemplified by The Belstone Fox [James Hill, 1973] and Tarka the Otter [David Cobham, 1979]), and in particular their collective relaying of human/animal relations as mutually destructive. Brown argued that this cycle of children’s film rooted in anthropomorphic animal representation viewed humanity as wildly destructive, whereas the animals in Rosen’s film in particular operate according to different notions of savagery, beauty and barbarism. The focus on the environment of Watership Down was pursued by Hollie Adams (Independent Researcher), who unlocked the film’s allegorical potential as a text largely invested in fraught animal/human relationships in ways that open up a space to discuss real-world environmental concerns. The ‘edu-tainment’ quality to Rosen’s film was explored by Adams according to how it might be educative to wildlife industries, particularly as there has been an increasing awareness of humanity’s impact on the environment and biodiversity (from an excessive use of plastic to its carbon footprint). What Adams’ paper achieved, then, was to take Watership Down’s pastoral landscapes and transform them into an eco-commentary, showing how the “displacement” of the animals by predatory humanity and human behaviour is signified in the film through images of leftover hostility (such as billboards and motorvehicles) that signify human encroachment, if not the facelessness of threatening modernity. The panel’s final paper was provided by Rachel Grider (North Dakota State University), who extended debates around voicework in animation to think specifically about the issues of linguistics, bilingualism and behaviour. Grider argued that Lapine is the sonic device that ‘cultures’ Watership Down’s rabbit protagonists, a “fantasy language” that takes its place alongside other invented or artificial languages (like Elvish or Klingon) that marks out the fictionality (and perhaps confirms the fantasy) of the world onscreen. Yet as Grider’s paper sought to argue, Watership Down’s Lapine language offers the chance to study the very humanity of the non-human and with it, fantasy’s inflection of the real sound. Grider’s focus on the film’s strong linguistic invention (as a rhetorical practice) thereby suggested a more reflexive interrogation of the power relations that structure the human/non-human identities ‘in play’ in the construction of the anthropomorph.
The first panel after lunch (Fig. 5) - titled Generic Landscapes and Soundscapes - began with Paul Mazey (University of Bristol), who discussed the expressiveness of Watership Down’s musical score as equivalent to the English landscape, one given a voice by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson’s musical accomplishments. Mazey’s identification of music as an actor in the film was channelled through the pastoral melodies running throughout certain scenes, which through sound actualise the rolling downs of the countryside and fully represent the atmosphere of rural life. For Mazey, the musicological emphasis on the timelessness, fecundity and tranquility of the music further comes together in Watership Down with individual shots emphasising the sprawling nature of the natural landscape, and Mazey offered an analysis of certain longer shots that move through the animated space with lingering contemplation. Leanne Weston (University of Warwick) shifted proceedings towards the horror genre, arguing not for the music’s pastoral qualities but instead for its affective resonance and assaultive elements. The contribution of music to Watership Down’s screen violence is an integral part of the film’s impact, particularly in the use of silence and what is not seen onscreen (but merely signposted as present through judicious sound design). Framed perhaps by Film Studies’ growing shift towards sound, music and sonic discourses, Weston’s paper therefore turned the volume up on a vital (but often muffled) component of the film’s traumatic identity. Matt Denny (University of Warwick) further maintained the panel’s dark and insidious turn, yet did so by considering both fantasy and folklore as a possible framework for understand Watership Down’s particular kind of spectactorial address. Denny’s paper suggested that folk horror - which typically uses folklore aesthetically or thematically for uncanny or horrific pleasures - unsettles the viewer of Rosen’s film, and provides a critical backdrop to consider its images of countrysides (and, crucially, what might be buried within them), and its potentially skewed morality. If folk horror provides an original “way of looking” at Watership Down, then Denny’s convincing paper paved the way for thinking about the themes of isolation in the film (if not its many strange edges) “through a rabbit’s eye darkly.” As Denny put it, what happens (and what is possible critically) when we decide to call Watership Down a horror film? The panel’s final paper presented by Dawn Keetley (Lehigh University) returned to both the film’s folkloric element - by way of Freud’s writing on the uncanny - alongside its systematic and occluded portrayal of humans, to note that the “man thing” looming over the narrative is present largely in its absence. Or, more acutely, man is present(ed) in its “things.” From discarded cigarette butts to mechanical machines, the dread (and agency) of objects is placed front and centre of a film that is powered by things left dormant by humans. For Keetley, humans are ultimately things too - undermining the landscape that they inhabit, and eroding its certainty through their own uncanny agency.
Panel 4 was charged with the task of explicating further Watership Down’s status as animation media, focusing on its shifting animated style and register, and the ideological implications of such ontological form for a narrative so rooted in depictions of violence. Sam Summers (Liverpool Hope University) argued that the film’s broader fluctuating style from cartoonal during the opening prologue sequence to a more hyper-realistic representation of rabbits (and then back again) marked a self-regulation of animation, which allowed the film to be inserted along a wider continuum familiar from animation studies between mimesis and abstraction (Fig. 6). As Summers notes, as the tension in Watership Down escalates, so does the realism, with the film’s shifting visuals used to emphasise the violence and help shape where our sympathies as spectators lie. Suggesting that the film stylistically combines both Disney and Warner Brothers means of representation (notably in its forgotten prologue of mass - if playful - bunny extinction), Summers ended by considering the “unreal fantasy” that usually supports animated violence, and whether the new volume and solidity of CG bodies in the upcoming BBC remake of Watership Down will reconfigure how the violence framed. Josh Schulze (University of Warwick) (Fig. 7) took inspiration from film scholar V. F. Perkins - the subject of a recent posthumous conference held at the university - to engage with animation’s rhetorical function, and what the medium actually ‘does’ with the violence being presented. Schulze confronted the duality of “graphic” as a term in both its visual and vivid sense, arguing for how the structures of violence and scenes of animal death in Watership Down are rendered ethical. With reference to philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and artist Francis Bacon, Schulze noted that the drawing of blood in Rosen’s film is an artistic practice that may (or may not) impact our enjoyment of the film at large, unlike comparable scenes of live-action death and cruelty in films such as La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939). Rounding off the panel with a focus on the ethics of cartoon violence, James Walters (University of Birmingham) positioned Watership Down within the context of contemporary computer-animated films Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, 2013), Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012) and the often-overlooked Rise of the Guardians (Peter Ramsey, 2012), which each include scenes that sources the comedy of violence (Fig. 8). Walters mined his own work on fantasy cinema to point out animation as occupying a “fantasy world”, but also the need of fictional worlds to include fantasy “so that its reality makes sense”. Yet the framing of violence in recent CG animated fantasies as cold, hard actions in which characters are “punched out of shot”, invites us to reconsider the issues of ‘pain’ in Watership Down, which seeks to make its cruelty and barbarism far more disturbing through its specific aesthetic weight (that has, perhap,s not been since in certain kinds of popular animated media since). The day’s final panel brought proceedings to a close through a consideration of grief, strength and feeling, appropriate to a film that continues to generate anxieties about the suitability of its subject matter (Fig. 9). Douglas Leatherland (Durham University) offered a paper that interrogated how grief is performed in the film (and how, at times, it is put aside) alongside broader issues of sentimentality. Leatherland noted how the film emphasises a collective grief among the rabbits rather than focusing in on specific characters (as in Richard Adams’ original 1972 novel), as well as pointing out important shifts in attitudes at how death is presented (flagging up the spectral apparition of Hazel at the film's end, and how it evokes a degree of hope and positivity). The last speaker of the day, Catherine Sadler (University of Hull), similarly engaged with questions of tone and trauma in exploring how mourning is a political act and/or private experience that is shaped around love and resistance. The aim of this final panel was to cast the spotlight back onto the issue of reception, identifying how Watership Down was received individually and collectively, but also - like Nigel and Klive’s anecdotes concerning its production that begun the day - the value and stakes of the personal. For adults and children alike, Watership Down exists as an imaginative, fantasy space where spectators are able to develop relationships with fictional animals, and become involved in the drama of their jeopardy, however painful this might be.
Perhaps the strangest moment of The Legacy of Watership Down: Animals, Adaptation, Animation (within the context of this website’s fascination with fantasy/animation) occurred at its end. As delegates departed the conference for a well-deserved drink, sitting alone on a bookshelf just outside the venue was a copy of Rosemary Jackson’s 1981 book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (Fig. 10). The spectre of fantasy (as mode, formula, genre, medium or impulse) loomed large over the day’s successful and illuminating discussions into Rosen’s animated film, whether the focus was on the cruelty and violence waged on its bodies, or the insidiousness of its folk horror landscapes and techniques of world-building. What forms of violence should take root in animation’s fantasy worlds? Who is on the receiving end and why? By what methods can a fictional world be rendered strange, eerie, uncanny and fantastic? The presence of a piece of fantasy scholarship occupying a space the margins of an event on animation neatly encapsulated the seductiveness of fantasy’s ‘almost-but-not-quite’ relationship to animation, if not the aims of this very network to bring these two fields of research closer together. But this is to orient away from the conference itself and its rich discussions on Watership Down, which in their shared quality and real brevity opened up several exciting avenues in which to pursue fantasy/animation even further, and how fantasy might be qualified or understood in a cartoon context. Indeed, it is clear from the speakers who gathered to meticulously discuss all elements of Watership Down’s production, reception, style and form that this is the beginning of a highly animated discussion, not the end. Given the scope of possible topics old and new, The Legacy of Watership Down: Animals, Adaptation, Animation could very easily have fallen down a rabbit role, but ultimately pulled several triumphant rabbits out of its hat.
Filipi, Daniel. “Watership Down.” Film Comment 51, no. 1 (January/February 2015): 76.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New York: Methuen, 1981).
Wells, Paul. The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons, and Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).