With this passion project, screenwriter-producer-director Martin Rosen brilliantly achieved what was thought difficult, if not impossible: a faithful big-screen adaptation of Richard Adams’s classic British dystopian novel about a community of rabbits seeking safety and happiness after their warren comes under terrible threat. With its naturalistic hand-drawn animation, dreamily expressionistic touches, gorgeously bucolic background design, and elegant voice work from such superb English actors as John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Richard Briers, and Denholm Elliott, 'Watership Down' is an emotionally arresting, dark-toned allegory about freedom amid political turmoil.
It's fascinating how some things get labeled. Richard Adams' 1972 award-winning debut novel Watership Down deals with weighty themes like religion, politics, and death. These subjects have confounded adults throughout the ages and still do to this day. Since the characters dealing with these issues are anthropomorphized wild rabbits in the English countryside, it's considered a children's book, yet I find the story much more meaningful to adults. Martin Rosen was captivated by the book and was so determined to create a film version that it became his directorial debut as feature filmmaker.
'Watership Down' opens with a prologue telling the origin of the world through the rabbit's perspective. The god Frith, who is represented by the Sun, brought forth life. After the rabbits outgrew their habitat because they were too fruitful and the warning to the rabbit prince El-ahrairah was ignored, Frith altered many of the other animals, turning them into predators to prey upon the rabbits. The sequence shows how mythology was created to explain the way the world works and the artwork is made up of brightly colored, simple figures on a white background, as if drawn by a child.
The film then transitions into the modern world and the artwork is more sophisticated. Fiver (Richard Briers) is very nervous and meek. He has visions and sees trouble arising at the warren, which is revealed to the audience to be humans, who have plans to develop the land. His brother Hazel (John Hurt) trusts Fiver's instincts and but the rabbits in charge don’t believe him. A small group of rabbits head off with the brothers.
Without a home of their own, they quickly discover danger lurks all around, as well as above and below. When a hunter's dog traps them at a creek, two mindsets are offered. Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) suggests it's every rabbit for himself, but Hazel wants to work together as a group to save the weak that can’t swim. As a group they choose the latter course, a decision from which Bigwig will later benefit.
The greatest trouble comes from their own kind when they encounter the warren of General Woundwort (Harry Andrews), a military dictator that terrorizes his fellow rabbits in way that uncomfortably similar to his human counterparts. For example, those above ground without permission are marked for identification and the females are treated like property. Hazel suggests the two groups co-exist peacefully, but the general has other ideas.
'Watership Down' is a captivating work that succeeds on multiple levels. It's a thrilling adventure on the surface with a rich story underneath that offers very serious ideas to contemplate about life and death. There are scenes of violence and images of blood that are more graphic than may be expected from a film filled with rabbits. While animation is the only way to tell this story, it's wonderful that Rosen stayed true to the book and made it accessible for adults rather than making it entirely kid-friendly.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Watership Dawn' (#748 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 12-page leaflet that contains Gerard Jones' essay "Take Me with You, Stream, on Your Dark Journey".
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal "this new high-definition digital transfer was created from the 35mm original camera negative at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California."
The prologue offers a clean picture with objects drawn with sharp lines and bright hues appearing on a bright white background. During the main story, colors aren't as bright, but they still have a strong appearance, like with the reds. Blacks are inky, as seen in the rats. Depth is created through perspective and also with the use of a multi-plane camera. Film grain can be seen, and at times, the texture of the paper stock can be seen in close-ups on the backgrounds.
Watercolors used for the backgrounds make objects look soft. This occurs even more so when things are intentionally created in an impressionistic manner rather than naturalistic. During the opening credits when the story transitions to modern world, faint specks of either dirt of paint can be seen. There are also faint streak marks across parts of the frame. A brief bit of flicker occurs as Hazel appear from out of the brush.
The audio is available in LPCM 2.0. Also taken from the liner notes, "the original stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4."
The track shows no sign of wear or defect. The dialogue is always clear. Angela Morley's full-bodied score is the best example of the loud end of the dynamic range and it helped to increase tension within scenes. The effects showcase the quiet end with faint sounds of animal paws on grass and babbling water. The tracks position characters across the front channels and the effects open up the soundfield, making it bigger than it seems with the use of echo when rabbits talk off screen having descended into a hole.
'Watership Down' is a captivating work that succeeds on multiple levels. It's a thrilling adventure on the surface with a rich story underneath that offers very serious ideas to contemplate about life and death. Although the extars are light, especially for a Criterion release, I highly recommend 'Watership Down' on the strength of the film. The quality of the video and audio are a welcome bonus.