The Work of Martin Rosen: They Don’t Animate Like This Anymore
It’s very simple for all of us to freely associate animation and talking animals with Disney. And since over the past 20 years American animation has become more and more tame and overly injected with saccharin. This would easily be why those unfamiliar with the ballsier animated features of the 70s and 80s, would find the British productions of Watership Down and The Plague Dogs so “disturbing” and start ranting that over-the-top bullshit opinion that it’s “not for kids.” Maybe not super young kids, but come on now, how sheltered do we need the younger generation to be.
Watership Down features a lot of heavy themes and images. The prologue to the entire adventure teaches a glossed over mythology of the rabbit species which essentially boils down to the fact that the first rabbit angered the sun (which can talk) and as a result rabbits will be hunted by every other animal on the planet. So within the first minutes of the feature a massive target is placed on every one of our big eared protagonists. From there great lessons are taught over the course of the narrative: the difficulties of forging a new society, autocratic oppression, and the overall cost of freedom. It sounds like haughty stuff but there’s more skill at storytelling here than in Shrek 4.
The Plague Dogs opens with a rather traumatic sequence of a dog being drowned for scientific reasons while two guys in white lab coats watch. The dog is eventually saved and returned to his pen next to another dog with a giant bandage on his head, underneath which we learn later is a lobotomy scar. The dogs escape the facility and go in search for a “master.” They soon discover that the utopia they seek is rather implausible and thus starts a rather intense story of survival. They befriend a fox named Tod who teaches them stealth as they pick off sheep and chickens from country farms. The lessons shown here include the life of a pariah, a return to instinctual survival, and what to do when society completely turns its back on you.
At the center of both these features is the message of courage. Both inform the viewer that the journeys of these characters are only made possible by their own determination and will to persevere. It’s animation with balls, but very much different from the work of Ralph Bakshi. It may have been intended for children initially given that the source materials are listed in the ‘Children’s Literature’ genre, but director Martin Rosen is just a little more unflinching in his depictions of the movie’s conflicts. He isn’t afraid to show the consequences of the characters’ actions and that some desires come with a price.
Many critics believe the violence in these movies to be overly excessive. I strongly feel that it is just enough. Watership Down's bloodier moments occur for a reason. When Bigwig is caught in a snare and is coughing blood, it's important to show some of the dangers the rabbits face and effects of traps on small animals fragile bodies. Hazel is shot with buckshot so when Kehaar the seagull picks with pellets out this will not happen without blood. Several times rabbits fight with tooth and claw resulting in gnashing and bloodletting. However, the death of General Woundwort isn't shown but instead just heavily implied. It was rabbit vs. farm dog and could have been extremely gratuitous but instead it happened off-camera. So we should recognize there was restraint shown by the filmmakers.
The Plague Dogs, aside from the earlier depictions of animal cruelty, mostly just shows the effects of violence. The dogs required food so they hunted and took down a sheep, the resulting carcass appearing in the movie. When one of the dogs’ human pursuers falls to his death in the mountains, we are shown later when his body is found that the dogs decided to not waste the free meat and devoured part of his corpse. Yes, I’m aware of the accidental shotgun to the face one man is the victim of but I still feel it isn’t completely excessive. The most emotional actual death would be Tod’s, yet it still happens on the other side of a wall out of sight from the viewer. It is only implied that the sneaky little fox is ripped to pieces by a pack of hunting dogs.
It’s just a shame that in western society the rule of animation seems to be that the lighter it is the better it is. Stories and plots are becoming more mundane and simple. It’s been awhile since a western animated feature really had the depth that was able to supersede the genre.
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