Watership Down: 25th Anniversary Edition Review
Watership Down, released in 1978, is one of those rare movies that is actually so different from the other films of its type that it is possible to argue that its uniqueness eclipses all of its other qualities. When viewed simply in its own right, it is an engaging if sometimes convoluted tale, yet when compared to almost every other animated feature both at the time of its release and even today, it stands out as a unique and original piece of filmmaking.
Writer/producer/director Martin Rosen did what few others have dared to do: to create an animated film featuring talking animals aimed squarely at adults. When you consider the problems involved with selling a film such as this (just how do you market a film that tells a tale of genocide and political turmoil in which the main characters are rabbits?) it is perhaps unsurprising that few films of this sort exist, so it is miraculous that this one even got made in the first place. Certainly it could not have been produced as a major studio effort, and only through producing the film independently and securing the funding himself could Rosen have hoped to complete the movie.
Watership Down is based on the book by English novelist Richard Adams, and tells the story of a group of rabbits who leave their warren after one rabbit, Fiver, has a premonition of it being destroyed. They find an unlikely leader in Fiver's older brother, Hazel. The first one-third or so of the movie shows their journey from their old warren, while the remainder details what happens to them after they create a new settlement, the Watership Down of the title.
This is, for all intents and purposes, an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel. Although there are some changes made to both the order of events and roles of characters here and there, Rosen generally does not deviate from the source material to any great extent. In a way, though, this is also one of the film's biggest problems. Rosen attempts to force the structure of a novel on a completely different medium, and the result is that the film at times becomes rather too "talky", with entire dialogues often lifted word for word from the book.
Of course, due to the length of the book compared to the film, something had to go, and the deletions are largely not noticeable, particularly if you have never read the book. There are, however, some moments where certain encounters and adventures are present for seemingly no reason. This is especially true of the events before the rabbits reach Watership Down. One episode, for instance, deals with an encounter with a warren of extremely bizarre rabbits who, it turns out, are being snared by men but are seemingly resigned to their fate. In the context of the book, this adventure helps the primary group of rabbits to reaffirm their loyalties and shows them how important it is for them to keep going until they find the perfect place to settle, but in the film it simply feels like it is there to make up the running time. It goes without saying that the film never quite manages to reach the psychological depths that the book reached, but it has a good go at it and does surprisingly well at times.
The film is reasonably solid on a technical level, although the quality of animation is not up to the standards of, for example, Disney or Warner Bros. At times it feels a bit like a student film, although it has to be said that the level of realism that the art and animation team have achieved is highly commendable. Most importantly, all the main characters have easily identifiable designs and characteristics, while never seeming to be caricatured. The colour palette is quite muted and drab, with a lot of earthy browns and watery greens, and this helps to maintain a foreboding atmosphere throughout the film.
The film has an impressive voice cast, with John Hurt and Richard Briers taking the lead roles. They generally acquit themselves well, although often the notoriety of their voices makes it difficult for the on-screen characters to speak for themselves. The kind of voices involved sometimes makes the film seem like an illustrated radio play, giving it an occasionally stilted feel.
What makes Watership Down so interesting and impressive is the maturity of the tale it tells. It is one of the few animated features (or at least, Western animated features) that does not hide the brutality of the world it depicts from the audience, or feel the need to talk down to the viewer. The film can easily be read as a political allegory, with the various different warrens represting different forms of government (what these different forms are is open to audience interpretation). The film also features a fair amount of at times surprisingly explicit violence, with more bloodletting than you might see in a number of slasher movies. It is this, more than anything, that shows that this film is most definitely not for children, and it makes the UK's "U" certificate completely baffling. It almost seems like the BBFC didn't actually view the film before rating it. The American and Australian PG ratings are a little more reasonable, but still in my opinion too low given the level of violence involved. (I never thought I would be claiming that a film's age rating was too low!) It has to be said that this movie does a great job of highlighting the ridiculousness of the common perception that animation is a children's medium.
The most disturbing elements of the film, though, are the art nouveau elements that are used to show the more spiritual side of death. At one point we are treated to a very unique and chilling vision of how Fiver imagines the destruction of the warren, and later on we are shown, in a somewhat opaque way, the result of the warren being gassed and filled in. Scenes like these would probably give a good number of small children nightmares. The most talked about moment (and for good reason), however, is the "Bright Eyes" sequence, where Hazel, on the verge of death, hallucinates that the Black Rabbit (the Watership Down equivalent of the Grim Reaper) is coming for him.
At the end of the day, Watership Down is a flawed but ambitious and often impressive piece of filmmaking. It tackles subjects that few other animated films have dared to, and holds up a mirror to our own society through the exploits of a group of rabbits. Animation fans looking for something thought-provoking and different would be well-advised to check this film out.
The packaging claims that the film is presented in its "original aspect ratio" of 1.85:1, although in reality the presentation is 1.78:1. In actual fact, the original aspect ratio was 1.66:1, which would suggest that the image is slightly cropped vertically. There does appear to be some cropping at the top or bottom of the screen in some shots, which lends credibility to this theory.
The packaging claims that the print has been "digitally remastered", but in reality it seems that the image has simply been very heavily filtered. The US DVD was quite grainy but showed a decent level of detail. Here, the grain has been replaced with an unnatural softness and some very visible compression artifacts. The fact that this is only a single layer disc is probably the main culprit for the compression problems.
The film's muted colour palette is represented correctly on the DVD. The contrast levels are decent, although the whites at times seem a little murky.
Overall, if you are expecting an increase in picture quality over the US release, forget it. It is, however, presented in an aspect ratio closer to the intended framing than the now OOP UK release's 1.33:1.
The original stereo mix is presented here, and it works reasonably well given the low budget of the film. It sounds a little thin and strained at times, but Angela Morley's evocative score sounds remarkably full. This is probably about as good as could be expected, and although the US DVD was surround encoded, in reality it doesn't actually sound remarkably different (apart from the issue of PAL's 4% speed-up and pitch change).
No subtitles of any kind are included.
The main menu is quite nice, with animation and music from the film. The sub-menus (special features, etc.) have no animation or sound.
The packaging for this release is reversible, with one side depicting artwork similar to the cutified American release, whereas the other side features the much darker artwork featured on the UK VHS release and the original theatrical posters. Personally I am very glad that the original artwork was included, and I suspect the reason for this was that Martin Rosen specifically expressed his disappointment with the US cover art in the commentary. That said, the quality of the cover is quite bad, with an overcompressed look and poor composition.
Commentary - First up is a Region 4-exclusive audio commentary with Film Threat editor Chris Gore interviewing writer/producer/director Martin Rosen. This is, hands down, one of the best commentaries I have heard this year. While the non screen-specific nature of the commentary might put off some, it's definitely worth sticking with as Rosen imparts a wealth of information. He takes his time answering questions, mainly because of the amount of detail he goes into, and Gore wisely doesn't interrupt. A lot of the commentary's running time is taken up with an account of how difficult the production process was - it sounds as if it is a miracle it got finished at all - which is absolutely fascinating and allows you to appreciate the film on a whole new level. The commentary actually runs slightly longer than the film itself, and ends with still photographs of the duo as they conclude their discussion.
Theatrical trailer - This sinister and slow-paced theatrical trailer is charmingly dated and actually does a very good job of selling the movie and its correct mood and atmosphere.
In production gallery - A collection of 28 black and white photos showing the production team and voice actors working on the film.
Premiere night gallery - Four black and white photos from the premiere night, including a couple of shots of director Martin Rosen hob-nobbing with Prince Charles.
Cast & crew biographies - Biographies are included for author Richard Adams, voice actor John Hurt, director Martin Rosen and senior animators Tony Guy, Philip Duncan, Arthur Humberstone and George Jackson.
Rabbit religion - This collection of extracts from the novel provides a decent explanation of the beliefs of the rabbits in the movie. Their vision of how the world was created is quite fascinating and is actually more believable than those of most "real" religions.
Real Watership Down images - Some text is provided detailing the area on which Richard Adams based Watership Down, followed by 12 colour photographs of the various locations he used for inspiration, comparing them to backgrounds from the film.
Rabbit words glossary - An invaluable source of information for those who have not read the book, this section gives explanations for all the unusual words the rabbits in the film use. In actual fact, not all of the terms presented here are used in the film itself (they seem to have been carried over from the definitions given in the novel), but nonetheless this is quite an interesting glossary.
Bright Eyes loop - This allows you to practice driving yourself insane by playing the Art Gurfunkel song from the film (together with the accompanying animation) on an infinite loop.
This Australian release of Watership Down is quite important because it is the first release of the film anywhere to go beyond a standard bare-bones package. The commentary is clearly the meatiest extra on display here, although the other features are all nice inclusions. While not the greatest line-up of supplementary material ever created, it's nice to see that someone took the time to provide these extras for a film that is all too often neglected.
This Australian release of Watership Down is not quite the be-all and end-all that we might have hoped for, as the image quality is quite disappointing - worse than the already mediocre US release. That said, the audio commentary is a superb extra and the relatively low price of this release should make it an appealing option for fans of the film.