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Western Animation / Watership Down

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Fiver: There's something very queer about the warren this evening...
Hazel: Is it dangerous?
Fiver: It's not exactly danger, it's... oh, I don't know. Something oppressive... like thunder.
— Opening lines

A 1978 British animated film directed by Martin Rosen, adapted from the 1972 novel of the same name by Richard Adams.

Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), our protagonist, has a little brother named Fiver (Richard Briers). Fiver has horrific — and, as later events prove, accurate — visions of the destruction of their home warren at Sandleford, but Hazel can't convince their Chief (Ralph Richardson) to pay attention to some loony runt, so he convinces a few of his friends to join him in leaving their homes to escape.

The thing is, the film is notorious in Internet culture for one simple reason: it's one of the darkest, most graphic pieces of children's fiction ever animated. Certainly, DVD cover art like this doesn't help, but what gets us here at TV Tropes is that you'd think more people would have heard of the book. Parents of bunny-obsessed children, while the author himself considered it quite acceptable to subject his young daughters to such Nightmare Fuel as Bigwig's brush with death and his battle with General Woundwort, the General himself, the awfully long scene (scored to Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes") where Hazel is almost certainly dead and Fiver is lost without him, Blackavar's story, or Holly recounting how he barely escaped the destruction of Sandleford Warren, you may at the very least wish to exercise extreme caution. On the off chance you need further convincing, please note that the latter sequence, faithful to the novel, is a semi-hallucinatory depiction of cute bunnies clawing out the throats of other cute bunnies as they all slowly suffocate. Oh, the film is really bloody, too. It was stamped with a U – suitable for all (basically a G in the US) – by the British Board of Film Classification; this rating has brought them much criticism since.


In 1999, a Lighter and Softer cartoon adaptation was broadcasted on British and Canadian television from 1999 to 2001. The cartoon revolves around Hazel and his friends trying to settle down and protect Watership Down from outside threats and natural disasters. While the cartoon was made for very young kids, it was praised for its mature story telling and world building and also had an All-Star Cast with actors such as Stephen Fry, Kiefer Sutherland, Stephen Mangan, Richard Briers and even John Hurt, this time playing General Woundwort. The show also uses an instrumental rendition of Bright Eyes for its opening and ending credits.


Tropes in this film:

  • Action Girl: Hyzenthlay plays a visible role in Holly's and Blackavar's escape attempts, and is one of the runners who lure the dog to the Down.
  • Action Survivor: All of the refugee rabbits qualify, but particularly Hazel and Bigwig, with the former getting blasted with a shotgun, and the latter getting snared and severely injured by Woundwort.
  • Actor Allusion: Hazel and Bigwig are voiced by the same actors as Aragorn and Boromir are in The Lord of the Rings which was released the same year. The characters and their relationship with each other is similar in both films. The actors in question are John Hurt and Michael Graham Cox, respectively.
  • Adaptation Distillation: It's only 91 minutes, a tearjerker, and on many best-of-animation lists. The story is more-or-less intact, though certain scenes are shortened (the hawk attack instead of the extended battle with the crows in the beanfield, for example).
  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: Many of the rabbits are colors like light blue and pale yellow, so the audience can tell them apart more easily, and so that they fit in with names like "Silver".
  • Animals Lack Attributes: Averted with the dog, played straight with the bucks. Somewhat justified as rabbit genitalia is as fluffy as the rest of them and so difficult to see.
  • Arc Words: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince With A Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you they will kill you...but first they must catch you."
  • Art Shift: The opening myth of El-Ahrairah was animated in the Aboriginesque style of the late John Hubley, the legendary founder of Limited Animation. The main film is ultra-detailed naturalistic animation... and then you have the rabbits' horrific visions and recollections, animated by Martin Rosen in a similarly abstract style, but with gradual transitions from the real.
  • Artistic License – Biology: The Heartbeat Soundtrack is a human heartbeat, not the much faster beat of a rabbit's heart.
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: Seemingly attempted but ultimately averted. Holds the accolade of being the only film to be granted a U―Certificate from the BBFC to contain the words “piss off” within the dialogue. Though played straight in the US where it warrants a PG. It did, however, get a G in Canada.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Bright Eyes" was a chart-topper performed by Art Garfunkel. The music, lyrics and scene in which it is featured make it a Tear Jerker.
  • Badass Baritone: Hazel, courtesy of John Hurt.
  • Batman Gambit: Hazel gets Kehaar to help him by keeping him around long enough to shock him that there are no does in the warren. When Kehaar brings this up, Hazel feigns ignorance, frustrating Kehaar into showing them how to get the does, doing all of the warren's work for them.
  • Big Good: Hazel, who’s the chief rabbit of the titular warren.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The rabbits manage to live happily on the warren, but Hazel dies of old age. On the other hand, Hazel peacefully crosses over into the afterlife, which is one of the main points of the story, so it's not exactly upsetting as there's a time gap between most of the film and the ending.
  • Blood from the Mouth: During the steel snare scene, actually adapted from the novel. Quite gruesome.
  • Caught in a Snare: Happens to Bigwig, who is choked by the neck by a steel cable rabbits cannot gnaw through. He is left for dead after coughing up blood and lying motionless despite his allies digging up the snare anchor. He surprisingly speaks as they lament him, calling for the death of the rabbits who did not warn them after luring them into the warren. Hell, it’s even the film poster!
  • Color-Coded Characters:
    • Played With. The rabbits with more "natural" colourings - sandy browns, greys, with no distinctive markings, etc. - are the protagonists, where the Amazing Technicolor Wildlife tend to be side characters or outright enemies. Virtually the entire warren of Efrafa seems to be filled with black rabbits.
    • The rabbits of Cowslip's warren are animated with subtle Creepy Long Arms and slightly drooping facial features. It gives them a very uncanny appearance which helps the audience to relate to they seem to the heroes.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The animated film had to streamline quite a bit of the story, otherwise it'd be hours long. It still manages to hit almost all the relevant points.
  • Contemptible Cover:
    • The child-friendly one, not the one you see above.
    • As well as including an otherwise-unavailable (at least at the time) commentary, the Australian DVD release, uniquely, provided a reversible cover, allowing one to choose between the child-friendly or dark versions.
    • Think that's bad? Even Woundwort is ashamed.
    • Thankfully, The Criterion Collection release rectifies this.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Blackavar doesn't last a second against Woundwort.
  • Darker and Edgier: An unavoidable consequence of the plot distillation; in order to fit the entire adventure plot into the runtime, many of the lighter, softer moments are cut. It can be difficult to convince people who have only ever seen the movie that the book actually has a generally hopeful tone that emphasizes the importance of kindness and compassion, despite the hardships faced by the characters. It features almost no named character deaths at all, no one with a major speaking role dies, and most of the deaths (like Nildro-Hain and Thrayonlosa) are "offscreen" and sad rather than sudden, bloody, and traumatic.
  • Dark Is Evil: The Efrafan warriors all have dark fur. Averted, however, with the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who is merely performing a necessary duty in the rabbit mythology.
  • Death by Adaptation: Blackavar. Poor Blackavar. What a senseless waste of rabbit life... Even managing to borderline on an 80s cliché given the name of the character, the fact that he‘s voiced by Clifton Jones (a Black actor), and the fact that he‘s the darkest-hued rabbit in the story.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Viewers not familiar with the book thought Fiver was the protagonist for much of the film, not Hazel.
  • Defiant to the End: Blackavar chooses to remain outside and face Woundwort, attacking his former chief on sight, rather than join the other rabbits inside the run the Bigwig is guarding. He gets tragically killed for his efforts, but it buys Bigwig enough time to prep an ambush.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: "Following the river of death downstream... or is it a dream?"
  • Don't Fear the Reaper:
    • In the novel, it was El-ahrairah who came to Hazel and asked him to join his Owsla, but oddly in the film it's clearly the Black Rabbit of Inlé who has come to claim Hazel instead, to take him to Frith and the afterlife. When Hazel looks back at his warren, the Black Rabbit says, "You needn't worry about them. They'll be all right... and thousands like them." Hazel goes willingly, and it looks like he and the Black Rabbit are eager to go exploring.
    • Add to that, after Hazel is shot, Fiver realizes Hazel is still alive... because the Black Rabbit (or possibly, Hazel's shade) appears to him and leads him to where Hazel is hiding. Terrifying as he is, the Black Rabbit is clearly a caring spirit.
  • Dramatic Irony: Fiver's fears about the Warren no longer being safe are proven correct to the audience early on. When the rabbits first leave the Warren, they run right by a sign claiming that the warren is going to be demolished and developed into a neighborhood. The rabbits fail to notice the sign however, and don’t learn about the Warren until much later in the film from Captain Holly.
  • Dress-Coded for Your Convenience: Without the actual dress, since rabbits don't wear clothes. Whereas the "heroic" rabbits are depicted as the most standard and variable in natural colors, the two warrens they encounter each have a unique look their inhabitants share:
    • The rabbits of Cowslip's Warren are all fat, red-eyed, with drooping, long, or withered features.
    • Efrafan rabbits are all darkly shaded with distinct blue shadows under their blue-green eyes.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Violet, Blackavar. Dropped a hawk / bunny on them respectively.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: Film only, and they have a fun way of inverting the Red Eyes, Take Warning subtrope. All the heroes have reddish eyes — they're rabbits after all. And we get so used to this over the course of the film that the minute we see the Efrafan rabbits' blue eyes, we sense something sinister about them.
  • Gorn: A shocking amount of it in an animated movie (of the time). Gets particularly egregious when Bigwig is choking to death in the snare, when Woundwort kills Blackavar and fights Bigwig, and when the dog attacks the Efrafans; those rabbits unfortunate enough to be caught are torn asunder or simply shredded.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: The movie largely averts this, with all the Family Unfriendly Deaths. But in the case of General Woundwort, we never get to see what happens after he leaps towards the dog with an open maw. This way, it‘s ambiguous whether or not he survived the fight.
  • Guile Hero: Hazel’s no warrior, but he's the hero due to his ability to bring the other rabbits together and think his way out of dangerous situations.
  • Hair-Raising Hare: The very page image depicts General Woundwort.
  • Heartbeat Soundtrack: The "Bright Eyes" sequence gives way to this, to indicate that Hazel is alive inside the culvert.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: All of the Efrafans have these.
  • Internal Reveal: We all know Hazel’s the Chief Rabbit of the titular Warren, but Woundwort always thought it was Bigwig instead until the latter told him, causing Woundwort to reply in confusion assuming there’s a bigger and stronger rabbit than Bigwig that he most likely wouldn’t stand with, given the equal match between Bigwig and Woundwort.
  • Ironic Echo: When Tab the cat first sees Hazel and Pipkin at the farm, Hazel taunts her by asking "Can you run?" with him replying "I think not". She later taunts a pinned and helpless Hazel with "Can you run? I think not... I think not..."
  • Jump Scare:
    • The rats in the barn abruptly make their presence known (to the audience, anyway), accompanied by an ear-splitting squeak.
    • During the fight between Bigwig and Woundwort, it cuts in the middle of the fight to Hazel and the runners leading the farm dog to Watership Down. It then cuts suddenly to Woundwort's ugly mug, teeth bared, covered in blood and foaming at the mouth, lunging at the camera!
  • Little "No": Fiver's reaction to being told about what happened to Hazel is to simply, quietly and calmly state "Hazel's not dead." He's right, of course, being a seer he could probably sense his brother was still alive.
  • Match Cut: A particularly great one near the beginning, when Frith dissolves into the late morning sun, with the music settling into a wistful version of the main theme.
  • No Cartoon Fish: Kehaar eats one. Nor are there cartoonish anything else, save the cartoon opening.
  • Oh, Crap!: The looks on the Efrafans' faces when the dog comes charging onto the down with its first victim dangling bloodily from its jaws. The one that almost got away, especially - and his fate is even worse.
  • Pardon My Klingon: In the novel, a guide to the various lapine words was provided towards the back, with many words also translated in-text the first time the characters spoke them. In the film, the words go untranslated, and a few times it becomes this trope.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Violet is taken by a hawk to show that this is no cartoon fun movie. It's a massive problem because, in the movie, she was their only doe, which puts them at the place they were in the novel (all bucks, no does, no viable warren).
  • Stupid Sacrifice: Blackavar at the end of the film. Arguably motivated by Tranquil Fury.
  • Stuffed into the Fridge: Violet turns out to be the Mauve Shirt of the group.
  • Sugar Apocalypse: "The field...the's covered with blood!"
  • Surprise Creepy: Looks like a cute animated movie about rabbits...One of them has a surreal vision of the fields being covered with blood. And that's not even getting into all the Family-Unfriendly Death.
  • Taking You with Me: Said by Bigwig in response to the Efrafan army coming to kill him and the rest of the warren.
    "If I'm for the Black Rabbit, there's one or two Efrafans that are coming with me!"
  • Wham Line: The film immediately stops being a cutesy kids movie once Fiver utters this Mood Whiplash of a line:
    Fiver: The field...the's covered with blood!
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Unlike the novel, the film doesn’t seem to mind about the characters at the end.
    • Fiver goes into a trance, claims to be dying, repeats "There's a dog loose in the woods" a few times... and that's the last we see of him in the film.
    • Bigwig is last seen all injured and exhausted after fighting Woundwort, who leaves him alone after learning that Bigwig isn’t the chief rabbit.
    • Downplayed with Hazel. When Lucy saves him from Tab, the latter actually doesn’t entirely let go of Hazel, who isn’t seen again until the very end as an elder.


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