Watership Down (Deluxe Edition) Review
As the rabbits believe it, the great lord Frith (Michael Hordern) created the world and made all animals equal. But the rabbit that Frith created, El-ahrairah, snubbed that which gave him life and so Frith gifted all animals, including cats, dogs, the hawk and the weasel who would hunt El-ahrairah but to the rabbit he gave speed and agility, telling him, "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you. Be cunning, and your people will never be destroyed."
As the centuries pass, rabbits live a productive existence and are never destroyed but they live in fear of the predators who hunt them. One frail little rabbit, Fiver (Richard Briers) has a vision of a blackness falling over the warren in which he lives and with his brother, Hazel (John Hurt), a soldier rabbit, Bigwig (Michael Graham-Cox) and others, they take flight from the danger in search of safety. Their path, as sworn by lord Frith, is surrounded by those that would be their enemy and they face danger from cats, dogs, badgers, foxes, rats, owls and from men, even in the quietest of woods or shelters. Eventually, the group find what they believe is a safe haven - the Watership Down of the title - but, as a seagull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel) tells them, they have no one with whom to mate and so they search for female company. This leads the rabbits to a farm, where the owners are armed with shotguns as well as to the greater threat of Efrafa, which is ruled by the imposing, snarling General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). From Efrafa, Hazel and Bigwig intend to lead a number of does to the safety of Watership Down but Woundwort does not allow anyone to leave his warren and keeps a close guard on those who try. Despite this, Bigwig and Hazel manage to assist those does who want to leave but Woundwort and his captains come after them and follow them to Watership Down.
Despite there being a wealth of animation on television during my youth, I found it hard to remember any feature animation broadcast on the three, or four from 1982 onwards, terrestrial channels. I certainly didn't see any Disney films until Beauty And The Beast when I was well into my twenties and although one was able to gorge on homegrown animation - Ivor The Engine, Willo The Wisp, Paddington Bear, Bod, etc. - as well as imports like Ulysses 31, Battle Of The Planets and Mysterious Cities Of Gold, I found it hard to think of animated films that were regularly broadcast.
The question was prompted by the arrival of this Deluxe Edition of Watership Down for review, which is one of the few animated films that I can remember being shown on British or Irish television. The only others that stand out are Animal Farm, Ralph Bakshi's Lord Of The Rings and the 1979 version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, that had its soundtrack re-recorded with Arthur Lowe and June Whitfield before its showing in Britain. As for this film, despite feeling that it gained a regular showing on British television, it was tainted by association with the Art Garfunkel song, Bright Eyes and I subsequently avoided it entirely. Even in watching this film for the very first time in the days before writing this review, I had a flashback to those days by seeing mention of a writing credit for Mike Batt, one time of The Wombles and now guiding Katie Melua to fame and fortune. But after having heard the Manic Street Preachers record a beautiful version of Bright Eyes - really! - for the B-Side of A Design For Life, I could have taken Watership Down drowning in the song and it really would have been fine. As it is, Bright Eyes only appears for a short time in what I had always imagined as a graceful and gentle parable for children about the British countryside. much as I had read how Richard Adams, the author of the original book, had intended it.
And that's really one of the first things to clarify about Watership Down - it's not really a kids film. Despite the BBFC rating this a U with a note that it contains mild treat and violence, this is really quite a grim film with no punches pulled in terms of the violence and killings that is portrays. Even in the film's opening minutes as Fiver is hurried away from feeding on a shrub to a vision of blood washing over a field, Watership Down is a disturbing film that portrays the countryside from the point of view of the rabbits and, for them, it's not a pleasant place. Whilst they find beauty, they also find the ever present threat of violence and blood haunts their movements between hedgerows. As we follow Hazel and Fiver in their search for a warren of their own, they walk close to death - the Black Rabbit of which they have heard much and fear - with one particularly effective scene being a walk through a moonlit wood, out of which comes a badger with bloody jaws. It is not until Watership Down is in sight that the shadows that follow them fall away but although there is a slight respite to the violence, it soon returns, more bloody than before, with their taunting of General Woundwort.
Woundwort is a magnificent adversary for Hazel and Bigwig - as bitter as they are hopeful and his arrival gives Watership Down a lift up just when it looks as though they, along with Fiver and the rest of the bucks, have reached their paradise. As Kehaar teases them, their happiness is short-lived and lonely and in their search for a mate, they come upon even greater dangers than they had faced before. The makers of this DVD are surely aware of his impact as they have him glower with his one-good/one-bad eyes over the titles and he is introduced with no small amount of style, initially only being seen in the shadows. The final battle against Woundwort is one that reveals the strength of the group and it sets up the ending beautifully. When this comes, it is a heartbreaking moment in which the Black Rabbit appears to one of the rabbits at Watership Down to persuade them to leave. As this rabbit looks back at a thriving warren, he lies down and his spirit departs to run with the Black Rabbit (Joss Ackland). With the acceptance of fate in the voice of the rabbit and the temptation in that of Joss Ackland, Watership Down has a terribly sad but very gentle ending. Whilst not too subtle for children to miss, the full impact of it passes them by, leaving this an animated film for adults to appreciate.
The animation and pace of the film, along with its undoubted darkness, are Watership Down's most appealing aspects - whilst rudimentary compared to Disney's best, there is a simple charm to it. Similarly, whilst many of Disney's films are rather frantic, particularly those in more recent years, Watership Down, like the 1979 version of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, gives space to its characters such that appear to the audience to be able to live outside of scripted events. The overhead shots of the rabbits running across fields, their stopping by a roadside and the care with which they settle down to sleep, all reveal a world in watercolour. Similarly, when the horror erupts around them, blood flows bright red and the rabbits become more vicious than humanity has ever been portrayed onscreen. In particular, the brutal fight between Woundwort and Bigwig is quite terrifying for younger children as is the gassing of the rabbits. This latter sequence allows the animators a chance to use their imaginations and the sight of rabbits dying and having their corpses trap and suffocate those left alive is one that remains long after the film ends.
Not then, a children's film despite its tale being told in animation, but a touching and effective story for older children and adults that shames me for having avoided it for so long.
As pointed out in Michael Mackenzie's review of the Region 4 25th Anniversary Edition, the original aspect ratio of Watership Down is 1.66:1 but, like that release, has been transferred as 1.78:1 despite the sleeve stating 1.85:1. All that aside, the picture isn't bad - colours are certain very good and the bold animation is retained on the DVD. There is, however, a softness, which is particularly noticeable on the backgrounds.
The English 2.0 Surround audio track is fine and makes good use of the rear channels for the ambient sounds of the countryside, which Martin Rosen and Terry Rawlings discuss in the conversation that they have in that special feature. There is very little noise and the reproduction of the voices, particularly Richard Briers' hushed tones, is very good indeed.
A Conversation With The Filmmakers (17m40s): Sitting behind a mixing desk, Martin Rosen (writer, producer, director) and Terry Rawlings (editor and sound editor) begin by discussing their first reading of the book and a meeting with Richard Adams before talking the viewer through the entire production, even to the decisions taken before releasing Bright Eyes as a single. It's not terrifically detailed - but at eighteen minutes it was hardly likely to be - it's not bad.
Defining A Style (12m03s): This is a short but interesting review of the production of the film from the point of view of the animators. Joss Ackland - the voice of the Black Rabbit of Death - also appears but the main voices are Alan Simpson, Colin White and background artists Denis Ryan and Gary Sycamore.
Storyboard Comparisons: There are four multi-angle comparisons in total - Title Sequence (3m41s), Hazel and Fiver Sneak into Nuthanger Farm (4m25s), Bigwig Leads Escape (2m57s) and Hazel Is Injured (2m36s) - all of which reveal how close the completed film was to the storyboards, even to the emotion on the faces of the rabbits.
I found out that this wasn't a kid's film the hard way - finding two young children with their faces buried into my arms during Woundwort's bloody assault on the warren at Watership Down, who were terrified of this creature. Taking that moment and others that are similar aside, there will be much for children to enjoy and older children certainly won't have a problem with it.
It is - and I'll make this point in a review of Robots - quite unlike the kind of animation that is made today in that it has a great deal of space in which little happens. More recently animated films tend towards the frantic, which makes this a relaxed and charming film of the kind that just don't get produced any more. That alone is a recommendation and although this isn't the best version out there - the Region 4 25th Anniversary Edition is a clear improvement - should you compare prices and find this the better, then it's a fine DVD.