In this first installment of “Animation Corner,” I’ll be taking a look back at a pair of Martin Rosen-directed films, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, in honor of Watership Down’s 35th anniversary. In addition to his work on those two films and his theater work, Rosen was also a producer for 1968’s A Great Big Thing, a co-producer for Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women In Love, a producer for 1985’s Smooth Talk, and was an executive producer for the TV series remake of Watership Down in 1999 (the book’s tone and content had to be heavily diluted for TV).
Rosen wrote, produced, and directed 1978’s classic Watership Down. Based on the novel by Richard Adams, this animated feature explores the surprisingly violent world of a den of rabbits as they attempt to establish a new colony free of human intervention and tyranny. It features the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, Roy Kinnear, and Zero Mostel in his final film appearance (as the voice of Kehaar the gull). Rosen stepped in to direct the film (his first directorial effort) after firing original director John Hubley, who had worked on the film for a year and had very little to show for it (the opening sequence is the only thing that remains of his work). The film is largely faithful to the book (particularly the dark tone and violent, disturbing content), and as a result, is considered the most violent PG-rated animated film ever.
Rosen’s directorial follow-up would also be his last directorial effort. Rosen wrote, produced, and directed 1982’s The Plague Dogs, an animated feature based on another Richard Adams novel. The film centers on two dogs named Rowf and Snitter, who escape from a research laboratory in England and try to survive in the wild with the help of a fox. The film highlights the cruelty of performing vivisection (operating on a living animal for experimental purposes) and animal research for its own sake. It features the voices of John Hurt, Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam, Nigel Hawthorne, and Patrick Stewart. It was released by United Artists in the U.K. with a running time of 103 minutes, but Embassy Pictures (the American distributor) made a number of cuts, and an 86 minute version was released in the U.S. in 1984 (which was rated PG-13 for its violent images).