Thirty years. I can't believe it's been thirty years.
I remember reading Richard Adams's enormously popular novel "Watership Down" somewhere in the mid 1970s and finding it a bit ponderous but generally imaginative. Then I saw the movie a couple of years later, and, frankly, it bored me at the time. When this thirtieth-anniversary DVD arrived, I had hoped that maybe after three decades, I would like it better. Not much. The movie is charming and thoughtful and a little bit scary by turns, but it still never came to life for me as I'd have liked.
Both the book and the movie became worldwide phenomenas, which didn't stop me from having several problems with both of them, especially the film. These issues start with the traditional 2-D animation. It's not that today's CGI creations are so much better because, after all, they weren't around thirty years ago; no, it's that the artwork tends to make all the characters--who are mostly rabbits--look alike. Then there's the screenplay and direction by Martin Rosen ("The Plague Dogs"), which give the story such a reverence you'd think he based it on something from the Bible. Finally, there's the difficulty in trying to correlate what is essentially an adult narrative with an art form and characters that one usually associates with children's stories. Let me assure you, "Watership Down" is not a children's fairy tale. Although the book worked pretty well in this regard, the subsequent movie is something akin to Ralph Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings" from the same year, 1978, where he decided to do it up as an animation, thereby turning something that appealed largely to teens and adults into a cartoon that seemed to trivialize it. "Animal Farm" had faced the same problems some years before.
Richard Adams has said that he originally created the tales for "Watership Down" for his children before writing them up in his first successful novel. The places are real, English landscapes with which Adams was familiar, although the philosophical implications are his own. I mentioned earlier that it seems as though writer-producer-director Rosen interprets the stories almost Biblically, a notion confirmed by Rosen himself in an accompanying featurette where he says the tale is a quest, like "Moses leading the people to the Promised Land." Maybe he needed to lighten up. The fables that readers can accept in a book don't always translate well to the screen when we see them too literally. What I mean is, the characters in "Watership Down" are rabbits, but they're anthropomorphic rabbits; that is, they are animals with the attributes of humans. So in the book, we kind of think of them as humans. But the movie reminds us every minute that they're cute, cuddly little creatures. It isn't quite the same thing.
Anyway, the story line is fairly simple, although as a fable it has multiple layers of meaning. Land developers threaten a warren of rabbits in the English countryside. One rabbit in particular, Fiver, has a premonition of danger and tries to warn the Chief Rabbit, a symbol of authoritarian dictatorship, but the Chief Rabbit thinks he's a lunatic and ignores him. So Fiver and his brother and a small group of followers slip out one night to find a new home for themselves. Their search leads them through new and unknown territory where they face a multitude of new dangers.
The small band of rabbits setting out on their own risk their lives braving the challenges of weather, woods, dogs, rivers, natural predators, roads and automobiles, trains, and, most important, other, unfriendly, rabbits who would enslave them.
One can readily see in the tale implications for meanings about pride, freedom, self-sacrifice, totalitarianism vs. democracy, religion, spiritualism, and saving the Earth, among others. The trouble is that only older children and adults will see much of these subtexts. Little kids may find a lot of it frightening (or boring). That's because a lot of the story deals in death, and a lot of it moves very, very slowly. In fact, I found the story moving too slowly even for me, and moving too episodically, first one thing and then another, with only the journey forward providing continuity.
Fortunately, there are several elements in the movie that one cannot easily criticize: the quality of the animation, the music, and the voice characterizations. The animators highly stylize the first few minutes of prologue, and then in the bulk of the movie they use soft watercolor background portraits to depict the pastoral settings and delicate character drawings to portray the creatures. Accompanying the artwork is Angela Morley's appropriately impressionistic, Debussy-like music and Mike Batt's gentle song "Bright Eyes" (performed by Art Garfunkel), which became quite popular at the time. The music nicely complements the beauty of the illustrations. (Now, if only those rabbits didn't look so much alike.)
Among the voice talents we find some of the cream of English actors on hand: John Hurt as Hazel, (as in Nut), a leader of the breakaway rabbit band; Richard Briers as Fiver, the oracle; Michael Graham-Cox as Bigwig, another of the band's leaders; Ralph Richardson as the Chief Rabbit; Roy Kinnear as Pipkin, a follower; Denholm Elliott as Cowslip, a suspicious fellow the group meet along the way; Harry Andrews as General Woundwort, the despotic head of a rival warren of rabbits; Nigel Hawthorn as Capt. Campion; and Joss Ackland as the "Black Rabbit." But most important is Zero Mostel, one of the few American actors in the film, in his final screen role. He plays Kehaar, an amusing seagull who steals the show. When he's around, the whole movie comes to life. When he's not, it gets pretty heavy-handed again.
"Watership Down" is lovely to look at and fun to listen to, but it can be dull and lethargic in spots, too, scattershot, and sometimes brutally savage. So I'm not sure it's everyone's cup of English tea, although there is no denying it has become a classic of its kind and has a fierce following of fans.
Here's the thing: The animation, as I've said, is beautiful in it amiably pastoral, delicately pastel manner. Yet the print shows a substantial amount of grain and noise, along with an intermittent light flicker, that renders it somewhat rough in appearance. While the hues look subdued, they nevertheless stand out strongly and maintain a pleasant balance of colors and contrasts. The movie's original 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio, here enhanced for widescreen TVs, now fills out a 1.85:1 television screen.
There's not a lot to say about the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. It merely does its job, and does so without much fanfare. There is a limited frequency response and dynamic range, and the rear channels yield about as much information as your surround-sound processor provides. Overall, I found the audio a bit laid back, like much of the movie, and a tad hard in the midrange.
I enjoyed the three 2005 featurettes that accompany the film. The first featurette is "Watership Down: A Conversation With the Filmmakers," about seventeen minutes with writer-director Martin Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings. It's quite informative and insightful. After that is the twelve-minute featurette, "Defining a Style," wherein several of the movie's artists and animators discuss the film and their roles in making it. Finally, there are four storyboard-to-screen, multi-angle comparisons, where you use the "Angle" button on your remote to switch among three different views. The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections, English as the only spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I know that a good many people value this motion picture highly, and I mean them no disrespect in saying it did not affect me quite the way it did them. Indeed, it may seem churlish of me to bad-mouth so well-meaning a movie as "Watership Down," but the fact remains that beyond its delightful animation, it did little to inspire me or move me. It's so gentle in some places and so turbulent in others, with so little dramatic transition in between, that I never felt myself caught up in the story line, no matter how multilayered it was. A near-miss for me.