Watership Down

Watership Down
Director: Martin Rosen
Screenplay: Martin Rosen (based on the novel by Richard Adams)
Stars: John Hurt (Hazel), Richard Briers (Fiver), Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig), John Bennett (Capt. Holly), Ralph Richardson (Chief Rabbit), Simon Cadell (Blackberry), Terence Rigby (Silver), Roy Kinnear (Pipkin), Richard O’Callaghan (Dandelion), Denholm Elliott (Cowslip), Lynn Farleigh (Cat), Mary Maddox (Clover), Zero Mostel (Kehaar), Harry Andrews (Gen. Woundwort), Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Capt. Campion), Clifton Jones (Blackavar)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1978
Country: U.K.
Watership Down Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Watership DownLike many children of my generation, I was fascinated and horrified by Martin Rosen’s superb animated adaptation of Richard Adams’s celebrated 1972 novel Watership Down, which combines both the epic journey and the political fable in a singular story about a group of rabbits seeking a new home—The Odyssey by way of Animal Farm. Much like Adams’s novel, the film is almost impossible to classify because it straddles so many divides: children’s and adult entertainment, dramatic conflict and allegorical richness, anthropomorphic familiarity and genuine animism. The film’s careful balance of humanizing the rabbits while also recognizing the realities of their inherent nature (which is more territorial and combative than cute and cuddly) gives its conflict a particularly sharp edge, one that resonates with me now as much as it did when I was a child.

The story centers around a warren of rabbits, a group of which decides to leave because one of their number, a timid, fragile runt named Fiver (Richard Briers), has a vision that convinces him that the warren is about to be destroyed by “something bad.” Led by Fiver’s brother Hazel (John Hurt), the rabbits leave their known life behind and head out into an uncertain future, where death lurks around every corner in the form of hungry rats, swooping birds of prey, vicious dogs, prowling cats, and, of course, humans, with their snares and heavy machinery. The prominence of death is established in a stylized prologue that presents us with the rabbits’ genesis mythology, which involves a sun god named Frith and a legendary rabbit named El-ahrairah who, like Adam and Eve, is both the sire of all rabbits and the cause of their pain and suffering (this prologue, which looks completely different from the rest of the film, is the only discernible contribution by animation veteran John Hubley, who was originally hired to direct the film but, depending on which account you read, was either fired by Rosen for lack of progress or died while still working on the film).

And there is much death and threat thereof along the way, both sudden (as when a rabbit is snatched by a bird) and protracted (a rabbit struggling after being caught in a snare is one of the film’s most powerful sequences). The rabbits also encounter several other warrens, including Efrafa, which is quickly revealed to be a despotic police state that is run by the grizzled, militaristic General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). Rosen allows for almost no softening of the film’s harder edges, and its vision of perpetual conflict is one of its most important and unnerving qualities. While peaceful existence is the ultimate goal, there is so much bloodshed and trauma along the way that any sense of resolution is tainted with the burden of what has been lost. This is not to say that Watership Down is despondent, but rather that it is realistic and knowing; it acknowledges the violence of the world while proffering hope for at least temporary peace. Like the book, Rosen also leavens the grimness of the story with bits of humor, much of which comes from an acerbic gull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel) who would be the rabbits’ mortal enemy, but because of the kindness they show to him when he is wounded, becomes one of their greatest allies.

Conveyed with hand-drawn animation against watercolor backgrounds that vary from the highly detailed to the nearly abstract, the action in Watership Down may appear somewhat crude to modern eyes accustomed to the three-dimensional photorealism of computer-animated films; however, a close inspection reveals a commitment to art and craft that many supposedly “better looking” movies lack. The attention to detail in the rabbits’ movements and behaviors makes for a completely convincing experience; the fidelity to the realities of animal behavior merges, rather than conflicts, with the rabbits’ sense of humanity, which is both noble and flawed. The main characters are indelibly drawn individuals, which can be partially attributed to the superb roster of British actors Rosen recruited to provide the voices, including John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, and Denholm Elliott.

Rosen, who produced, directed, and adapted Adams’s 400-page novel into the streamlined 92-minute film, had previously co-produced only two films, one of which was Ken Russell’s film of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969). Watership Down was very much a labor of love for him, and it probably never could have happened without someone who believed so fervently in the material. By any stretch of the economic imagination, Watership Down was going to be tough sell, given its release at a time when animation was not a particularly popular medium (even Disney’s animation department was struggling mightily at the time) and in a culture in which the animation automatically signaled “children.” Children certainly understand Watership Down, if primarily on an emotional rather than a political level, and it leaves its mark. There are violent images from the film—Fiver’s vision of a field running with blood, Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) caught in a snare and almost dying, the horrifying, surrealistic depiction of the warren’s destruction, and the final, bloodied battle between Bigwig and General Woundwort—that stuck with me for decades and that I don’t expect to ever lose. It is a grim film, no doubt, but never nihilistic. The darkness is palpable, but so is the light.

Watership Down Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Video interview with director Martin Rosen
  • Video interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro about the film’s importance in animation history
  • Picture-in-picture storyboards for the entire film
  • “Defining a Style,” a 2005 featurette about the film’s aesthetic
  • Trailer
  • Essay by comic book writer Gerard Jones
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.98
    Release DateFebruary 24, 2015

    VIDEO
    Watership Down makes its high-definition debut in Criterion’s superb new transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. The increased resolution allows for maximum appreciation of the boldness of the film’s animated rabbits and the delicacy of the expressionistic watercolor backgrounds. There is a good presence of film grain in the image, which adds additional texture that compliments the hand-drawn animation. The color palette is often dominated by heavy earth tones—the grays of the rabbits, the browns of the underground burrows—although there is also lots of greenery that has a particularly naturalistic hue to it (the image is bright, but the colors don’t look oversaturated or intense). The liner notes make no mention of digital restoration, but it is hard to imagine that no work went into cleaning up the image given the limited presence of defects and wear. The monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, leaving it clear and crisp.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    I would have loved to have heard a full-length audio commentary on the film, but I’m also more than pleased with the inclusion of a new video interview with director Martin Rosen, who talks about what it took to get the film made. Criterion also includes a new video interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who discusses the film’s importance in animation history and why its rough aesthetic works so well. Also included on the disc is a trailer and “Defining a Style,” a 2005 featurette in which a number of the key animators discuss their experience working on the film. Probably the coolest supplement, though, is the inclusion all the film’s storyboards, which you can watch simultaneously with the film using a picture-in-picture option.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection



    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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