Two animated films about talking rabbits and talking dogs. Kid stuff? Don’t bet on it.
As many fans know, 1978′s Watership Down is not only not a kiddie movie, it boasts a good deal more maturity and depth than most live-action movies for adults. The same is also true of 1982′s The Plague Dogs, which is, if anything, even more grim than Watership Down. The two movies are proper companion pieces for several reasons. Both are based on novels by Richard Adams, who is basically in the same boat with Anthony Burgess: British author of many novels, forever identified with only one. Both come from the same filmmaking team: writer-director Martin Rosen, animation director Tony Guy. Both contain some of the finest detail you’ll ever see in an animated feature. At least two noted British actors lend their voices to both — John Hurt and Nigel Hawthorne.
However, while most people are familiar with Watership Down — if you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably caught the movie on video or TV — almost no one outside Adams die-hards and animation buffs has even heard of The Plague Dogs. Both movies deserve to be seen and cherished, but The Plague Dogs needs your attention more urgently: It has languished in obscurity long enough.
A fable of fettered souls yearning for freedom, Watership Down has long been burdened with sociopolitical meaning that Adams himself never intended (or so he has said). A young, fearful rabbit named Fiver has been having troubling visions of impending doom. “The field is covered in blood,” he whimpers, and we see that, sure enough, blood is everywhere. This, in case you were wondering, is your first clue that this isn’t a Disney toon. Hardly anyone in Sandleford Warren takes Fiver seriously except his brother Hazel. These are very British rabbits; in one of my favorite moments, when Fiver is jabbering about his visions, we overhear a bemused rabbit muttering “What’s he on about?”
Fiver’s visions, it turns out, are real: Sandleford is soon to be bulldozed to make way for a housing development. So Fiver, Hazel, and a few other believers — including Bigwig, a former member of the warren’s “owsla” (paramilitary group) — set off for points unknown. They have to trust in the intuitions of Fiver, who knows only that Sandleford is unsafe and that there is a better place ahead — a high place of rolling hills, devoid of mankind. That place is Watership Down. Once there, they realize they don’t have any does (females) with them, and a few of them go to a nearby farm to liberate some. In the course of their journey, the rabbits run across two other warrens: an odd place where the rabbits have good food but suspiciously empty burrows, and a fascist warren run by the fearsome General Woundwort. Scholars of the book have suggested that the rabbits in these latter warrens are doomed because they have abandoned Frith, the god of creation in the rabbits’ mythology; they’ve abandoned spirituality in favor of personal gain (food) or power (the Efrafa warren run by Woundwort with the help of vicious owsla).
Richard Adams, who like so many authors began Watership Down as a story told to his children, put a lot of lapine mythology into his novel. Devotees of the book say this is where the movie version falls short. It has room only for the basic quest — the dangers, the escapes, the battles, the strategies. My feeling is that the book is the book and the movie is the movie, and that if you want the mythology, it’s there in Adams’ book and its 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down. The movie still retains the vivid characterization of the novel, as well as the incidents that have sparked so much speculation. And it’s beautifully realized — a rainbow of muted colors and perfect voice casting. John Hurt is the voice of the sensible Hazel, Richard Briars the nervous visionary Fiver, Ralph Richardson the imposing Chief Rabbit, Denholm Elliott the snooty Cowslip — who lives in the warren that fans have come to call the Warren of Shining Wires. A potentially discordant note is the loud seagull Kehaar, voiced by the loud Zero Mostel. Kehaar sometimes comes perilously close to being the Jar Jar Binks of Watership Down, but the difference is that he’s funny when he’s supposed to be, and helpful when he needs to be.
All told, the movie is an excellent and unsoftened take on the novel, though I regret the pacing that sometimes makes it feel like a TV movie; there are a few too many fades to black where it seems a commercial should go. There’s a musical interlude set to the song “Bright Eyes” (sung by Art Garfunkel) that’s subtle enough — at least it’s not a pull-out-the-stops Disney number — but also runs on a bit. Otherwise, all these years later, this is the same movie I fell in love with as a kid. The villains are genuinely frightening; I’d put Woundwort up against anyone whose name begins with Darth, and the crosscutting in the climax — Bigwig vs. Woundwort, while a hungry dog decimates most of the Efrafa owsla — has it all over the similar climax in Phantom Menace. The grim, brutal moments stand out more in memory, but actually a good deal of the film is hopeful and almost idyllic.
Watership Down has gotten a somewhat tarnished “too intense for younger children” rep, and it does have its moments of abrupt, unforgiving violence when some of the characters meet the Black Rabbit of Inlé a lot sooner than they ever wanted to. When the rabbits are slashed, they bleed, and when they die, they go out with eyes open and tongues lolling out. But it really doesn’t tell children anything they can’t handle; hell, even Bambi showed kids that nature is cruel and man is the ugliest predator. They might as well learn it young. There is an actual Watership Down, the Hampshire/Berkenshire region located west of London; the land surrounding it is owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. In recent years, according to reports, the rabbits in the real-life Watership Down have multiplied and dug too many holes in what is essentially an agricultural area. The government came up with a plan to discourage the rabbits: mass extermination by gassing.
That’s a real-life denouement worthy of The Plague Dogs, which would also get — and deserve — the “too intense for younger children” rep, if it were well-known enough to have a rep. The film begins not on the sun-bathed English countryside (as did Watership Down) but in darkness, with a mournful, echoing gospel-type song with lyrics like “Not gonna feel the pain no more.” We also hear splashing. We fade in, and we’re inside a secret government animal experimentation lab in the middle of a British national park. A noble black labrador is swimming in a huge water tank; exhausted, he slips under the water and bumps the bottom. A hook fishes him out, and he’s brought back to consciousness with electroshock paddles. This dog — called Rowf — is part of a water-immersion experiment to see how long a dog can swim before he drowns. Welcome to The Plague Dogs. It’s not a fun movie. Nor is it meant to be.
Adams wrote his book, he has said, as a dark satire on animal testing, government, and the media. (In the book, the name of the lab site is Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental — a sly pun for British readers: check the initials.) When the door to Rowf’s cell is left ajar, he escapes with a fellow inmate — Snitter, a jittery little dog with a bandage on his head (from recent tampering with his brain). The dogs roam the bleak, rocky countryside, more or less unprepared for life in the wild. Rowf is a cynical, tired old dog who can’t take any more immersion tests by the “whitecoats” — he figures he’s going to die out in the wild, but he’d rather die there than in the tank. Snitter is a bit like Fiver; he has hallucinations of his former life as a house pet, and he wants to find a loving master so he can sit by the fire and be petted and cared for. The dogs are sighted here and there, and after a truly shocking and bloody incident that spells out in neon that this is not a movie for kids, the government redoubles its efforts to capture and destroy Rowf and Snitter. To prevent any citizens from being heroes and catching the dogs themselves — or from taking pity on the mutts and sheltering them, for that matter — the government feeds the British papers the official lie that the dogs may be carrying fleas infected with bubonic plague.
John Hurt returns here as the voice of Snitter, joined by the gruff Christopher Benjamin as Rowf. In due time, the dogs run across a fox named Tod, voiced by James Bolam as a schemer full of plots and immensely satisfying invective the way only the British can deliver it — “You bleedin’ great sod” and so on. (In human roles, you can hear Nigel Hawthorne as Dr. Boycott, the head of the experiment lab, and Patrick Stewart as an army major.) The two Adams movies gave John Hurt the opportunity to play both ends of the spectrum: as Hazel, he was the level-headed one, and as Snitter he gets to suffer and complain about the cobwebs in his skull. There’s a surface similarity between the Hazel/Fiver team and the Rowf/Snitter team, but Rowf isn’t the thinker that Hazel was, and the dogs have no real game plan. The rabbits were escaping from one place towards the paradise in Fiver’s visions; the dogs are just escaping, and the only paradise in Snitter’s visions is the one in his past, the one he can never have again.
Somewhere near the middle, after the dogs have passed the point of no return, there’s a brilliant circling shot of Rowf on a hill howling at the moon. The whole movie is shot through with despair and dread; it feels like a prolonged howl of helplessness. The Plague Dogs, I think, actually has a smaller body count than Watership Down, but it establishes its bleak tone in the first moments and never lightens up; the closest thing to comic relief here is Tod, but he’s no Kehaar — he’s not allowed to break the dark mood. This is a movie that shows you a cute little dog lying in its cell, motionless, quite dead; a custodian strolls by, says something like “Right, here’s another one,” and scoops the carcass up with a shovel. The sound of the shovel scraping the concrete floor is the final ugly touch of realism.
Perhaps moments like that were part of why the movie fell through the cracks. It’s too grim for kids, and most adults will look at it, see that it’s a cartoon with talking dogs, assume it’s something like All Dogs Go to Heaven, and pass on it. Unlike Watership Down, which can be marketed and enjoyed as family entertainment, The Plague Dogs is made of nastier, more upsetting stuff. Watership Down can be viewed at an interpretive distance — ah, it’s a fable about society and the folly of systems built on force and hatred. The Plague Dogs is a little too uncomfortably real, because Richard Adams didn’t put anything in his book that hadn’t actually been perpetrated on lab animals, and it continues to this day. Maybe, too, the movie was punished for being too political: Show this to kids, and they might grow up to be activists. Whatever the reason — and though I love Watership Down — my sympathies lie with the underdogs, so to speak. The movie has a dark beauty, with an ending that’s simultaneously depressing and transcendent, and the fact that The Plague Dogs remains largely obscure is a crime.