It features the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, and Roy Kinnear, among others, and was the last film work of Zero Mostel, as the voice of Kehaar the gull. The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. Art Garfunkel's hit single "Bright Eyes", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt, briefly features.
According to Adams' Lapine language, culture and mythology, the world was created by the god Frith, who represents the Sun. All animals lived harmoniously, but the rabbits eventually multiplied, and their appetite led to a food shortage. At the prayers of the desperate animals, Frith warned the rabbit prince El-ahrairah to control his people, but was scoffed at. In retaliation, Frith gave special gifts to every animal, but some animals he made predators to prey upon the rabbits. Satisfied that El-ahrairah (Now also known as "Prince with a Thousand Enemies") had learned his lesson, Frith also gave the rabbits speed and cunning; while many would seek to kill them, the rabbits could survive by their wits and quickness.
In the present, in the English countryside of Sandleford, Fiver, a rabbit seer has an apocalyptic vision and goes with his older brother Hazel to beg the chief to have the warren evacuated, but they are dismissed and attempt to make an exodus themselves. The group meets resistance from the warren's police force called the Owsla, but eight manage to fight and escape: Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver and Violet. They travel through the dangerous woods and make it to a bean field to rest. In the morning, Violet is killed by a hawk, leaving the group without a female.
After several dangerous situations, they meet the enigmatic rabbit Cowslip, who invites them to his warren. They are grateful, but Fiver senses something unsettling in the atmosphere, as well as the resident rabbits' overly resigned attitudes, and leaves. An irked Bigwig follows, and chastises Fiver for supposedly causing senseless tension with his instincts. Moments later, however, he is caught in a snare trap. Fiver attempts to get help from their hosts, but is ignored. Bigwig is freed after nearly dying. As Fiver reveals, the warren is fed by a farmer who snares rabbits in return for his food and protection from predators. After Bigwig's narrow escape, the other rabbits willingly follow Fiver's and Hazel's advice and set out once more.
The rabbits discover Nuthanger farm, which contains a hutch of female rabbits, necessary for a new warren. However, they do not manage to free them, on account of the territorial farm cat and dog. Later, they are found by the maimed Owsla Captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans, and a mysterious group called the "Efrafrans" before falling unconscious. After he recovers, Fiver finally leads the group to the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the rabbits settle in, with Hazel as chief.
They befriend an acerbic injured seagull, Kehaar, who offers to survey the local area for does. The rabbits return to Nuthanger Farm to free the does; Hazel is shot by a farmer and presumed dead, but Fiver has a vision and follows the apparition of the Black Rabbit of Inlé (a rabbit version of the Grim Reaper) to his injured brother. Kehaar returns and while removing buckshot pellets from Hazel's leg, reports of Efrafa, a large warren with many females. Holly, who encountered Efrafa, begs them not to go there, describing it as a totalitarian state, run by vicious and heavily territorial rabbits. Hazel feels they have no choice but to go there. Bigwig infiltrates the enemy warren and is made an Owsla officer by the cruel chief, General Woundwort. Bigwig recruits several potential escapees to his cause, including Hyzenthlay, an idealistic doe and Blackavar, a scarred attempted escapee. They flee, and using a boat to float down the river, they evade capture, helped by Kehaar. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland, with the gratitude of the warren.
Several days later, Efrafan trackers discover their trail and follow them to Watership Down. Hazel offers a treaty with Woundwort, who dismisses Hazel, telling him to turn over Bigwig and all the deserters or he will kill the entire warren. The Watership rabbits barricade their warren and are besieged by the Efrafans. Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions a dog loose in the woods. His moans inspire Hazel to free the dog from Nuthanger Farm and lead him to the Efrafans. He escapes with Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay.
Hazel prays to Frith, offering his life for that of those in the warren, a bargain Frith acknowledges, but does not accept. Hazel releases the dog while his companions bait it into following them to Watership Down; Hazel is attacked by the cat, but saved by Lucy (the owner of the hutch rabbits). When the Efrafans break through the warren's defences, Woundwort goes in alone; Blackavar attacks him, but Woundwort slays him easily. Bigwig ambushes Woundwort and they fight to exhaustion. The dog arrives and attacks the Efrafan soldiers. Hearing the commotion, Woundwort abandons Bigwig and fearlessly confronts the dog. No trace of Woundwort is found, leaving his fate ambiguous.
Several years later, the warren is thriving. An elderly Hazel is visited by the Black Rabbit of Inlé, who invites him to "join his Owsla", assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel accepts and dies peacefully. Hazel's spirit follows the Black Rabbit of Inlé through the woodland and trees towards the Sun, which metamorphoses into Frith, and the afterlife.
The film was originally to be directed by John Hubley, who died in 1977. His work can still be found in the film, most notably in the "fable" scene. He was replaced by the film's producer Martin Rosen, his directorial debut.
After the genesis story, which was rendered in a narrated simple cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalistic one. There are concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest that they have human voices and minds, some facial expressions for emotion, and paw gestures. The animation backgrounds are watercolors. Only one of the predators, the farm cat Tab, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.
The backgrounds and locations, especially Efrafa and the nearby railway, are based on the diagrams and maps in Richard Adams's original novel. Most of the locations in the movie either exist or were based on real spots in Hampshire and surrounding areas.
Although the film is fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overly detailed complexity and improve the pace and flow of the plot. In addition, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged. Unlike many animated features, the film faithfully emulated the dark and violent sophistication of the book. As a result, many reviewers took to warning parents that children might find the content disturbing. When the film was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the BBFC passed the film with a 'U' certificate (suitable for all ages, similar to the MPAA's "G" rating), deciding that "whilst the film may move children emotionally during the film's duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story is broken and a 'U' certificate was therefore quite appropriate". However, in 2012, the BBFC admitted that it had "received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at U almost every year since its classification". In the U.S. on the other hand, the film was rated PG due to the violent scenes.
This attitude was extended when the animated Watership Down TV series was marketed with the producers making an effort to reassure parents that the violence had been softened and that the main characters would not be permanently harmed in their adventures. Although the third season took a slightly darker tone to try and attract more of an audience, the season never aired.
Some marketers in the U.S. also worried that the main promotional poster appeared too dark and might scare some children. The poster is actually showing Bigwig in a snare (his distinctive fur is clearly visible), yet the image on the poster does not appear in the film, which contains a far bloodier depiction of the scene.
The film has also been dubbed in Japanese along with The Plague Dogs.
The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, Morley replacing Williamson after the composer had fallen behind and only composed the prelude and main title theme in sketch form. A list of the musical cues for the film can be found on the composer's website, which also gives information about the different composers working on the project.
The soundtrack includes Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt.
The film was an immediate success at the UK box office and has received a mostly positive critical reception, with an 82% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was nominated for Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979. In 2004, the magazine Total Film named Watership Down the 47th greatest British film of all time and it was also ranked 15th in the "100 Greatest Tearjerkers".
Investors in the film reportedly received a return of 5,000% on their investment.
Despite its success at the UK box office, the film underperformed at the US box office, earning only US$3 million against a budget of $4 million.
A picture book of the animated film was also produced, titled The Watership Down Film Picture Book. Two editions of the book were published, one a hard-cover, the other a reinforced cloth-bound edition. The contents include stills from the film linked with a combination of narration and extracts from the script, as well as a preface written by Richard Adams and a foreword written by Martin Rosen.Video
UK: Thorn EMI (1982) / Guild Home Video (1987) / PolyGram Video (1990s) / Warner Home Video (2005) / Universal Pictures (2001, 2013–present)
USA: Warner Home Video (1983–2014) / The Criterion Collection (2015–present)
Finland: Finn Innovation Products (1995) / Future Film Ltd (2005)
Australia: CIC Video (1980s–1999) / Roadshow Home Video (1999–2000) / Blue Sky Video (2005)
DVD/BLU-RAYWatership Down (2001 release: Universal Home Entertainment, region 2, UK)
Watership Down (2002 release: Warner Home Video, region 1, USA, OOP)
Watership Down 25th Anniversary Edition (2003 release: Big Sky Video, region 4, Australia)
Watership Down (2005 release: Umbrella Entertainment, region 4, Australia)
Watership Down Deluxe Edition (2005 release: Warner Home Video, region 2, UK)
Watership Down Deluxe Edition (2008 release: Warner Home Video, region 1, USA)
Watership Down (2011 Blu-ray release: Warner Home Video, region A/B/C, Germany)
Watership Down (2013 Blu-ray release: Universal Home Entertainment, region B, UK); this was originally scheduled for release in October 2010, but was postponed due to a rights dispute between Universal (who holds some UK distribution rights from overseas arm CIC) and Warner Bros (who previously released a DVD of it in the UK and owns all other international rights).
Watership Down (The Criterion Collection Spine #748 - 2015 release: region 1 DVD & region A Blu-Ray, USA)
UK: Cinema International Corporation
Australia: Filmways Australasian Company
US: AVCO Embassy Pictures, later by Warner Bros. Pictures via Warner Animation Group, and currently by Janus Films
Netherlands: Concorde Film
On 10 March 2015, the BBC announced a new script for a CGI animated film based on the novel Watership Down is in early productions.
Almost twenty years after the film Watership Down was released, a TV series with the same title was created. It has thirty-nine episodes and was loosely based on the events of the film, albeit the storyline is more child-friendly. However, the third season does take a slightly darker turn than the first two seasons did.
On 17 August 2011, Sonny "Skrillex" Moore, Tim "Bitvargen" Smith, Kathryn Frazier, and Clayton Blaha announced the record label OWSLA, named after the warren's police force.