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Classic Hollywood Movie Spotlight: 'Watership Down'

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Sep 20, 2010 | 7:42am EDT

Legend of the GuardiansThis week was supposed to be about vampires, but honestly, I don’t have the heart. (Rim shot.) Seriously, I somehow found myself in a movie theater that was shoving Vampires Suck down my headhole. How did I end up there? Back off, man -- I’m a film journalist. Or a movie columnist. Or something. Anyhow, sitting there, wanting to gnaw off my own arm, I had the most distinct sense of being inside a dead culture, like going to a punk show in the '90s or a rave a month ago. Dead, dead, dead.

Let’s talk kids movies. Coming out next week is something called Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which is based on a 15-book fantasy series about owls having adventures and wars and stuff. The trailers aren’t blowing me away, and it’s hard to take them seriously, but then again, there’s another movie about talking animals that loomed so large in my childhood that I still watch it regularly, and read the book that inspired it every other year or so.

That movie is this week’s case in point: 1978’s Watership Down.

So I’m a kid. I’m an asthmatic, home-schooled, scrawny little thing with a brilliant and eccentric family. Most of my time is spent reading comic books and making up stories. I’ve talked before about my stepfather’s extensive movie collection -- rows and rows of VHS tapes with titles written in a crisp blue script on a white label on each one, all of them catalogued perfectly in a little binder. One of the movies my stepfather had was Watership Down.

Watership DownI don’t remember if I’d seen it on HBO or he’d recorded it himself. The movie starts out kindly enough, a sort of just-so story about about how rabbits got their legs and their ears and why they’re so clever, but a minute or so into this thing, the rabbits breed too fast. At this point the creator, God Frith, sends a bunch of stoats, dogs and cats to eat up all the rabbits. And they do. They just eat them right up. Next thing you know you’re looking at a screen full of dead rabbits. Then El-ahraira, the Prince of Rabbits, gets blessed with speed and wit, just so he can survive in a world with all this death. That’s when Frith says: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you, digger, listener, runner. Prince with a swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

At that point the animation style changes and we go into a sort of naturalistic world and we’re introduced to Hazel and his brother Fiver, whose prophetic visions are the inspiration for the truly epic journey that makes up the bulk of the film. A few minutes after that, the field fills with blood. Which doesn’t prepare you for the part where … Well, it’s traumatic. Trust me.

The movie has lived in me ever since I can remember. This is due in part to the crafty way in which it’s made: the fully committed voice performances by the likes of John Hurt and Richard Briers, the mythological framing, the distinct and endearing characters, the big epic feel of it all. But holding the whole thing together is the unsentimental depiction of nature and death.

Watership DownI remember having a conversation with my friend Tommi Cahill about the last book in the Harry Potter series. Our entire conversation centered on whether or not J.K. Rowling had lost her nerve in terms of who she killed. It’s a strange thing to have a debate about. In Watership Down, both the book and the movie, death isn’t a possible outcome for some characters; it is the driving force that permeates everything. Death, the literal version, in the form of the Black Rabbit, manifests as a character and makes everything within the story have a sense of inevitability.

Exactly because of this willingness to embrace the fact of death, the entire story is a celebration of what it means to live, to find camaraderie, fight for a place to call home, put your life on the line for freedom, build a family and have kids -- all of it. Death comes for us all. Only a rabbit filled with the spirit of El-ahraira could become friends with the Black Rabbit.

So screw vampires. I’m gonna embrace the living.

Next week: Don’t you, forget about me! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!

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