Judge Erich Asperschlager likes his rabbits button-cute and medium-rare.
"All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you…Be cunning and full of tricks and your people will never be destroyed."
One of Britain's biggest theatrical hits in 1978 was producer/writer/director Martin Rosen's animated retelling of the Richard Adams novel Watership Down. 30 years later, it hits shelves as a so-called "Deluxe Edition" DVD, but is it worth following down the rabbit hole?
Facts of the Case
The rabbits of Sandleford warren live a happy life with plenty of food and safe shelter, but all that is about to change, and it's up to Fiver (a runt who sees visions of the future) to warn everyone. Only a small group believe in the danger enough to follow him and his brother Hazel on a journey into the unknown to find a new home—one Fiver has only seen in his dreams. Along the way, they'll face dangers from land, water, and air, including opposition from their own kind. But if they stick together, and keep the wits given to them by the sun spirit Frith, they just might find the home they are searching for.
Somehow, in all the classes I took from middle school to senior high, I missed out on reading Watership Down. Maybe it had to do with moving from Connecticut to Maine after my sophomore year. Maybe it just wasn't in the educational cards. Whatever happened, I still haven't made it through Richard Adams's breakthrough novel—though I did read about half of it a year or so back—thanks to its prominence in the TV show Lost—so this new release was my introduction to the story (the last half, at least).
Whether it's fair or not, novel-to-film translations are notorious for not being "as good as the book." From what I could tell, Watership Down hews close enough to the novel to succeed on that level. Even though much of the book's detail and some of its characters are missing, the overall story and feel are present in Rosen's faithful screenplay. Some of the events have been compressed or reshuffled, but moreso than most adaptations, Watership Down hits the big screen intact—bloody rabbit fights and all.
Perhaps if I'd read the book or seen the movie when I was younger, Watership Down: Deluxe Edition could have slipped by on nostalgia. Crotchety old man that I am, though, there are enough flaws to make recommending it difficult. The biggest problems with the movie are also its main selling points: a naturalistic animation style, and its careful adherence to the source material.
The history of animated fauna is littered with furry, googly-eyed cutie pies from Disney to Don Bluth. That Rosen wanted his cartoon rabbits to look and act more natural than, say, a certain Warner Bros. mascot is commendable. Indeed, the way Hazel and his lagomorphic companions move and fight is impressively realistic. The problem is one of style. Despite handpainted watercolor backgrounds and the beautiful creation story sequence that opens the film, most of the animation feels half-finished. The character models have none of the rhythm or gesture of even the simplest Disney cartoon, and the muddy color palette isn't helped by the poor quality of this print. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this release is how non-"deluxe" it looks. On a widescreen TV, the visual flaws are even more obvious. There is noticeable damage throughout the film, and the picture is grainy, with a persistent flicker. If you think these problems are just a matter of the film's age, take a look at last week's release of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, a movie which predates Watership by nearly two decades.
The film's other problem has to do with story and pacing. Although Watership Down is considered to be a children's book, Adams' characters live in a complex world with its own history, social structure, and mythology. Though Rosen tries, in his screenplay, to capture that depth, it's just not possible in 92 short minutes. Instead of adding to the experience, most of the references to the legend of Frith and the rabbit spirit El-ahrairah are confusing and weigh the film down, especially during the sluggish first 45 minutes or so. By the time things pick up in the final action-packed half hour, it's almost too late.
Pacing and visual problems aside, there's much to like about Watership Down, especially if you've read and enjoyed the book. The film's biggest strength (besides Adams's imaginative story) is an impressive British voice cast that includes John Hurt and Denholm Elliott. Recorded as though it were a radio drama, the marriage of actor and animator makes for some compelling characterizations, especially considering our heros are rabbits. The only misfire is Zero Mostel as a bird named Kehaar, whose squawking eastern european accent is played for laughs that just don't fit the dramatic action.
Adding to the frustrations of a poor transfer is the likewise disappointing audio track. Getting stereo instead of surround is understandable; getting a muddied sound track with underlying hiss is not. It's definitely not the best way to enjoy either Angela Morley's score or Art Garfunkel singing the movie's hit single "Bright Eyes." I'll leave it up to you to decide whether there's any good way to enjoy an Art Garfunkel song.
The extras for this deluxe edition include a 17-minute interview with director Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings that sums up the making of the film from conception to release, a 12-minute featurette about how the animators developed the look of the characters, and a storyboard-to-screen comparison of four scenes from the movie ("Opening Sequence," "Nuthanger Farm," "Hazel Is Injured," and "Efrafa Chase") that lets you use the angle button on your remote to switch between the finished scene, the storyboard, and both together.
I'm prepared to accept that my lukewarm response to Watership Down has a lot to do with having not read the book or seen the film up to now. I know a lot of people love the movie, and those people are this Deluxe Edition's intended audience. Richard Adams's story, with all its allegory and adventure, deserves an honored place in children's literature (though the movie has enough genuinely scary and violent moments to earn its PG rating). That this film can't quite reach that same level shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's ever been underwhelmed by a movie adaptation of a book.
You bunnies are lucky you're so cute. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers"
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