Sometimes it’s easy to tell if a movie isn’t meant for children. Sometimes it requires warnings: Netflix's Watership Down is violent and bleak, but it’s still centered around the lives of those small, soft, carrot-nibbling critters we call rabbits, and parents seeking a cartoon for the little ones could be caught off guard. Talking animals aren’t what most people expect in an epic drama, and even after the kids are shooed out of the room, some viewers might feel like they're watching something made for children in spite of the bloodshed.
The same could be said of the 1978 animated movie and the Richard Adams book that both are based on, but the advancement of computer animation means that there’s an element of visual realism changing the game. Other classic animal stories are likewise being remade with lifelike graphics, such as Netflix’s Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, which draws from the same fiction series by Rudyard Kipling as Disney’s The Jungle Book did in 2016. Movies and television about animals used to rely on either traditional animation or the limited (and sometimes ethically dubious) use of animal actors, but that’s no longer the case, and it’s making a difference in the way the adaptations are approached.
It’s an evolution of media that we’ve seen before. For a long time, the best bet for superhero movies was to lean into the campy special effects by producing wholesome and simplistic light fare that appealed mostly to younger audiences. As the visuals became more convincing, the stories became more mature, and now it looks like a similar change is taking place within the genre of animal stories.
So far, though, the potential to match up the lifelike style with realism in the story hasn't quite panned out. The rough, long-legged rabbits in Netflix’s Watership Down look real -- if not enough to mistake them for live-action, then at least enough to expect them to act like real rabbits. To an extent, that’s what they do; the heart of the story, as in every version, is the rabbits’ struggle for survival on both an individual level and for following generations, which is nothing but fictionalized natural law. But the latest interpretation also has them acting like humans, to the point of falling in love and forming lifelong relationships.
When humans are driving a plot, sex and violence are seen as the key to making it more mature. The inclusion of animal sex would cost any story a lot of dignity, but Watership Down seems to be trying to compensate by emphasizing the violence, and by hinting at the rabbits’ reproductive urges through a metaphor of human love. Unfortunately, chastely romantic overtures don’t make the bunnies any less cute. Is there any other solution to the target age confusion without removing the role of nature entirely?