Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Watership Down: Crossing the Fine Line?

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

Easter week - for most it's a time for chocolate, eggs, newly-hatched chicks and fluffy bunnies. So on Sunday, Channel 4 in the UK devoted its mid-afternoon slot to Watership Down, a movie full of cute rabbits and the beautiful British countryside. But it wasn't as straightforward as all that. Anyone who's seen Watership Down knows it is not all cute rabbits. This is a film full of mature content and graphic imagery, and is so controversial that some people refuse to watch it even as adults. So, not surprisingly, Twitter was overflowing with comments from shocked parents reminding the world how traumatic this film was. And, naturally, fans of the film also took to social media to defend it as an important piece of work.

Personally, I stand between the two opinions.

​I remember watching the first 45 minutes when I was a kid on Cartoon Network. When my mum came in and saw it on the TV, she instantly turned the channel over. And even then, when I was only about 7 or 8 years old, I could understand why - I'd already seen the blood-soaked field; the panicking rabbits being poisoned in their warren; Bigwig's violent encounter with the snare. And while I don't remember having explicit nightmares, it did linger in my mind in a very unpleasant way. I avoided watching it again for the remainder of my childhood, and only sat down to see it in its entirety at the urging of a friend when I was in my early 20s. I still felt the same unease as the first time, but I kept going, and when the end credits started rolling, I had to admit I was glad I'd seen it. I acknowledged its powerful storytelling, talented voice-acting, and beautiful (if at times gory) imagery. I couldn't ignore the fact that it was a good film.

But it begged other questions which, in a similar way, I only realised when I was older. When my mum switched the channel, An American Tail started playing, and she had no problem with that. I had no problems with it either; it was one of my favourite childhood films. But look at some of the imagery from it and tell me it doesn't also have the potential to be traumatising.

Scary stuff in kid's movies is nothing new - after all, back when Snow White was released in the 1930s, the scene depicting the Queen's transformation into the old hag caused many grown women in the audience to faint with fear. The old Disney movies were packed with darkness, especially the first three: Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia. And as time went by, we entered what I consider to be the golden age of scary kid movies (at least by modern standards): the 1980s. I was born in 1991 and so many of these films from the past decade surrounded me in my childhood, with all their creepy imagery, treacherous plots and dark subject matter. They were the films that a lot of people wouldn't dream of showing to kids nowadays - titles like Return to Oz, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and practically everything directed by Don Bluth. These were all ones I saw growing up, and while they were undoubtedly scary, I accepted them for being just that.

​It's important to remember that kids are smart. We know, even from a young and impressionable age, that a film like All Dogs Go To Heaven is speaking to us in a different way to a film like Beauty and the Beast. Both have their subtle morals, share of funny moments, engaging characters, and so forth; but we get a different feeling from both of them. And that's okay. Because in that young and impressionable part of our lives, we are learning so much about the world, including the fact that we will face scary things and go through hardship. Movies and books can be almost like a training exercise for our minds; allowing us to feel emotions we perhaps haven't felt before from the safety of a familiar environment, and knowing that despite everything we are seeing, it can't hurt us. So as we get older and experience similar emotions in the context of our own lives, we are more well-prepared to face them accordingly.

This comes back to a statement by Don Bluth, who was behind a lot of these 'darker' children's movies in the 80s: you can show children anything so long as it has a happy ending. And I do agree with that to a point. Children have an intrinsic desire to always see good triumph over evil; that happiness will always prevail. And in the majority of kid's films, that does happen. So their young viewers are more accepting of the darker parts of the story, even if it might scare them half to death, because they truly believe that it will not last. That's quite an inspiring way to view these things, if you think about it. And it's the sparking of those parts of the brain early, preparing them for the real scary moments that life will throw at them, which I believe we as adults can also learn from.

​But, as I just said, I only agree with it to a point. When can you go too far with the darkness?

The key to a great family film is paying attention to both the children and adults in the audience; giving both age groups something within the feature to keep them engaged. In many films I saw as a child, there were a lot of things that flew over my head, but as I've re-watched them again as I've grown older, I can pick up on them, which to my child-self were my parents chuckling at random parts. It gives the films another level of depth so they can appeal to not just the children, which the bright colours and big-eyed characters would have you first think. In short, there is a balance between the 'kid-friendly' imagery and jokes, and the more adult innuendoes or dark aspects.

It's a common misconception that just because a film is animated, it must be kids' fare and okay to show them without thinking about it. A lot of parents made this mistake when South Park first aired - all they saw was its cartoon style and thought it would be good for their children, and how wrong they were! In contrast, when I was a kid, my mum sometimes watched a film before me to make sure it wouldn't scare me too much. She knew my limits and wouldn't subject me to something I wouldn't have been able to handle. If she said yes, I would still be scared, but just enough. They all kept to that balance; perhaps a little closer to the line than the lighter-hearted Disney films like Aladdin, but they never stepped over it.

 think the problem with Watership Down is that it did step over the line.

​It's okay to have some parts of a film go over the young viewers' heads for benefit of the adults, as I said before. It's okay to show dark things, scary imagery; even a bit of violence isn't too bad. But another key to a family film is being able to show these things in moderation. Don Bluth understood this; for as traumatising as his imagery could be to some children, there was practically never any blood or gruesome on-screen deaths. If they had to happen, they were done quickly and smoothly, so you had no doubt about what had happened, but you could move on from it as well. Watership Down does not do that. It drags out the most horrific sections to the point where you cannot look away, filling each one with vivid red blood. And it does it with what a lot of kids believe are one of the gentlest creatures on earth.

​I'm not saying that we should mislead children into thinking that nature is kind or to ignore any of the other messages this film presents. But there is a time to introduce them to such concepts, and it is after they have found comfort in the fact that they can be shown horrible things if there is a happy ending to follow. Kids are smart, but they are still impressionable. Bambi can be a traumatising film, but if I'd seen Watership Down before it, would I have loved Thumper so much?
At this point, I want to draw attention to another film that came out in the 1980s: Grave of the Fireflies by Hayao Miyazaki. Anyone who has seen his other movies, like My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo, could potentially go into this one thinking it will be cutesy and colourful. Those are the two things it is not. It is the one film which eclipses my feelings of Watership Down once again.

There is death, awful imagery, blood and gore - and it is an animated film. The only difference is that, although this came out in the era of Return to Oz and The Dark Crystal, this was not marketed for children.

​People acknowledge Grave of the Fireflies as an animation made purely for adults - one of the first to do so. For those who have seen it, we know it is not something to show to young children. And Watership Down can elicit a similar response from parents who did see it as children themselves. But there is one major difference, which I still can't get my head around: Watership Down has a U (or G in the US) rating. It has been deemed by the viewing classification boards as being suitable for all. ​So in the midst of all those dark 80s films getting a suitable PG rating, despite having notably less blood and gore, it is more generally recommended that you show your child Watership Down over Labyrinth.

I'm sorry, but that is a load of rubbish.

​I do like Watership Down. I can see how good and important a film it is, but I believe it should be one purely for adults. How its rating hasn't been increased for modern audiences baffles me, because for those parents who don't take the time to check a film like mine did, that is all they will look at. And while it is always possible for parents to simply turn the channel over when it gets too edgy, like mine did, I believe that little green triangle on the DVD cover is one of the main reasons why so many kids become terrified of this movie. It is not a children's film. The book it was adapted from was not meant to be read by youngsters. Just because it centres around bunnies does not automatically make it suitable for children.

​It is important to always be aware of that balance family films need to have. The dark 80s movies I grew up with are still some of my favourites, and I appreciate them for the gutsy things they showed to me as a child. But even back then, I knew I could handle them, because they respected that fine line, and my parents respected me enough to let me watch them. We don't need to only give kids bright and cheerful subject matter, because they will look for the darker things too in order to experience something new from a safe distance. It's important not to deny them that, but the same way you wouldn't start them off with a Jack Nicholson movie, leave Watership Down for the teenage years. And not the mid-afternoon slot on Easter weekend.

Plus, it has a swearing seagull. Bloody hilarious, just not for those who aren't in high school yet. (And no pun intended there!)

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