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HTF DVD REVIEW: Watership Down: Special Edition



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#1 of 8 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted October 06 2008 - 03:59 PM

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Watership Down: Deluxe Edition

Directed By: Martin Rosen

Voice Cast: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham-Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson, Simon Cadell, Terence Rigby, Roy Kinnear, Richard O'Callaghan, Denholm Elliott, Lyn Farleigh, Mary Maddox, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews

Studio: Warner Bros.

Year: 1978

Rated: PG

Film Length: 92 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 16:9

Subtitles: English, French

Release Date: October 7, 2008

 

The Film

Martin Rosen's Watership Down is an animated adaptation of Richard Adam's allegorical novel about a group of rabbits who leave their warren when one of them has a premonition of dreadful things to come. Their journey to find a new home is fraught with dangers both from omnipresent predators and from other groups of rabbits who want to dominate, subjugate, and/or exploit them.

Animated features were at something of a low ebb in the late 1970s, with the Disney juggernaut just about out of steam and their formula seeming to have become stale. The time was ripe for something fresh, and while the independently produced Watership Down did not prove to be the hallmark of a new wave of theatrical animation, it did prove to be something of a phenomenon on its own, particularly in the UK. It demonstrated the potential for theatrical animation to deal with somewhat more mature themes than had been the norm without going quite as far into adult content as Ralph Bakshi did in his 70s and 80s output.

In short, any one who goes into this film with the conventional paradigms associated with animated films about bunnies will likely be shocked to find a relentlessly serious depiction of "the circle of life" viewed with clear eyes from the bottom end of the food chain. The Richard Adams source novel is not softened in any way. Arguably it is made even more grueling by the graphic visual depictions of bloody violence by merciless predators, uncaring humans, and sadistic totalitarian rabbits. While the inclusion of these graphic elements suggests that the film is not intended for very small children, older kids who may have a familiarity with the book will likely appreciate it. That being said, I know of adults who find its relentless naturalism disturbing, so adjust expectations according to your tolerance and preferences.

Visually, the film mixes sumptuous backgrounds, many representative of the real Watership Down location, with relatively unpolished animation. With the exception of the heavily stylized opening sequence which lays out the mythology that informs the rabbits’ worldview, the animators strive for realism, using only minimal anthropomorphic elements in the design of the characters. Making such realistic designs come alive and infusing them with personality through movement is a substantial challenge which the animation team only meets with limited success.

This leaves the burden of infusing the characters with distinctive personalities largely on the shoulders of the voice cast, which is capably filled with a roster of distinguished British actors including John Hurt, Richard Briers, and Michael Graham Cox in lead roles. The voices were recorded in an iterative process including the usual western animation method of recording the voice actors in advance, but then in many cases allowing them to re-voice their lines after viewing the partially completed animation. The result are vocal performances that, while still “bigger” than one normally gets in theatrical features, are much more nuanced than one generally gets in animation.

The one notable exception to the restraint shown by most of the voice cast is the character of Kehaar voiced by American actor Zero Mostel. Kehaar is a largely inept seagull who befriends the rabbits on their exodus. He is intended largely as comic relief. Mostel, in what would turn out to be his final film performance, voices him in a broad comic Eastern European accent. In the case of Kehaar, the animators also go a bit farther than the film's norm infusing him with anthropomorphic traits, frequently having him wave his wings like arms when speaking. Personally, I found his character, who is understandably supposed to be somewhat annoying, a bit excessive and an uneasy fit within the world created by the movie.

The Video

The transfer fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. Framing appears to be a bit tight suggesting that it might have fared better at a ratio closer to 1.66:1. This is only rarely a concern when watching with no overscan. Colors contrast and compression are all quite good, good enough in fact, to expose many of the seams in the handmade nature of the cel animation. While instances of film damage are few and far between, artifacts of the cel animation process and natural film grain have been left largely intact.

The Audio

The film is presented with a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that has generally good fidelity, but sounds somewhat dynamically compressed .

The Extras

All Extras are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio.

Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers (4:3 - 17:11) is an interview with screenwriter/Producer/Director Martin Rosen and Editor Terry Rawlings. After a prologue introducing the participants and explaining how Rosen became interested in developing the book into a film project, the featurette is broken into sections with on-screen titles (but no encoded chapter stops) as follows: The genesis of "Watership Down, The Look of "Watership Down, The Sounds of “Watership Down”, The Music of "Watership Down", The Phenomenon of "Watership Down", and The Spirit of "Watership Down". Rosen and Rawlings are relaxed and conversational in their interactions, although Rosen does the lion's share of the talking. The topics covered are handled by brief exposition with lots of first hand anecdotes. The interviews are intercut with clips from the film and behind the scenes stills and footage.

Defining a Style (16:9 - 12:02) is a slightly briefer featurette built around interviews with Key Animator Alan Simpson, Animator Colin White, Background Artist Denis Ryan, Background Artist Gary Sycamore, and voice actor Joss Ackland. In addition to their first hand accounts of the film's production and their working methods, contextual comments are offered by Toonhound.com President Frazer Diamond. As with the previous featurette, the highlights are the production anecdotes offered up by the participants, who are all amiable raconteurs. The two animators sit together for their interview as do the two background artists. This joint interview set-up encourages interactions eliciting interesting, illustrative, and occasionally amusing stories.

Storyboard Comparison (16:9) is a multi-angle featurette that allows the viewer to compare completed animation of four scenes from the film with the corresponding pre-production storyboards. The first video angle is the finished film, the second video angle is the corresponding storyboards, and the third video angle is a composite of the previous two. Strangely, the fact that this is a multi-angle feature is not mentioned on the packaging or menus. The four scenes included and their running times are as follows: Opening Sequence (3:41), Nuthanger Farm (4:29), Hazel is Injured (2:40), and Efrafa Chase (3:02).

In addition to a prior bare bones release in Region 1 which included only a handful of text-based supplements, Watership Down has appeared in myriad other versions in other Regions. The extras included in this Region 1 Special Edition are the same ones that appeared in the 2005 Region 2 Special Edition release. Multi-region compatible fans of the film will likely still want to track down the Region 4 Anniversary Edition which included a number of exclusive extras including a commentary in which Film Threat editor Chris Gore interviews Screenwriter/Producer/Director Martin Rosen.

Packaging

The film is presented in a standard Amaray case with no inserts. The cover features the striking original promotional image of a skyward looking bunny in silhouette, and is a huge improvement over the "snapper" case cover of the previous Region 1 edition.

Summary

Watership Down is a serious-minded allegory exploring the plight of a tribe of rabbits attempting an exodus through a world of predators and vicious rivals told through the medium of animation. It is presented on this Special Edition DVD with very good, although possibly overmatted, video and acceptable if uninspired two channel stereo audio. Extras consist of a pair of featurettes built around interviews with technicians and artists behind the film as well as a multi-angle feature showing storyboards for four scenes from the film.


Regards,

Edited by Ken_McAlinden - 7/7/2009 at 02:47 pm GMT
Ken McAlinden
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#2 of 8 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

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Posted October 06 2008 - 06:07 PM

One of my favorite novels. I can't say I've ever seen this adaptation, though it's been on my queue for some time. Thanks for the review!
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#3 of 8 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted October 07 2008 - 12:17 AM

This great film was on TV many times back in the UK when I was growing up and, as such, I have it deeply ingrained in me. Whenever I hear the sad "Bright Eyes' song I get a little quiet when I think back.

Thanks for the review, Ken. I have the first release of this but will pick up this new one now too!
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#4 of 8 OFFLINE   Jon Martin

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Posted October 07 2008 - 05:50 AM

Is that R rating a typo, or is this a whole new cut of it? It has always been PG, as far as I remember.

#5 of 8 OFFLINE   Colin Jacobson

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Posted October 07 2008 - 07:27 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon Martin
Is that R rating a typo, or is this a whole new cut of it? It has always been PG, as far as I remember.

Typo...
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#6 of 8 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted October 08 2008 - 12:24 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jon Martin
Is that R rating a typo, or is this a whole new cut of it? It has always been PG, as far as I remember.
Complete typo. It was a hangover from the template I used for the review. It is now corrected. Thanks!

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
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#7 of 8 ONLINE   Powell&Pressburger

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Posted April 05 2010 - 09:28 AM

Any chance this could be released on BLU from WB's ? It would be cool to have a HD release.

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#8 of 8 OFFLINE   Cees Alons

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Posted April 06 2010 - 12:41 PM

Very nice review, Ken, but a bit old.  /img/vbsmilies/htf/smile.gif /img/vbsmilies/htf/smiley_wink.gif
One reason why the allegorical effect of this movie hasn't lost its urgency over time is of course the Illness, the 'White Blindness'. Richard Adam nor Martin Rosen could have foreseen in 1978, how a deadly and highly infectious disease would soon frighten the human population as well.
In Australia and the UK (and to a lesser extent in some other countries) the myxomatosis was intentionally induced and spread among the rabbits (with very questionable and dangerous results until this day).

Bright Eyes, indeed.

I agree, it would be great on BD, Jack!


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