- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
Set in the brush and pastoral beauty of Hampshire in southern England, the county I grew up in, Watership Down is a fascinating examination of life and death. Through the prism of nature’s great beauty and inherent cruelty, the vivid lives of a group of rabbits who leave the relative safety of their warren on a leap of great faith (when a young rabbit presages doom,) are explored. Watership Down is surprisingly serious, dark at times, but provides such a connecting and rewarding experience to those who watch – young and old – that viewers will find the world and characters portrayed within will stay with you for evermore. Criterion delivers a wonderful high-definition release of this treasured film.
Studio: Anchor Bay
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 1 Hr. 32 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayStandard Criterion Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 02/24/2015
The Production Rating: 4/5
“Long ago, the great Frith made the world. He made all the stars and the world lived among the stars. Frith made all the animals and birds and, at first, made them all the same. Now, among the animals was El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits. He had many friends and they all ate grass together. But after a time, the rabbits wandered everywhere, multiplying and eating as they went. Then Frith said to El-Ahrairah, "Prince Rabbit, if you cannot control your people, I shall find ways to control them." But El-Ahrairah would not listen and said to Frith, "My people are the strongest in the world." This angered Frith, so he determined to get the better of El-Ahrairah. He gave a present to every animal and bird, making each one different from the rest. When the fox came and others, like the dog and cat, hawk and weasel, to each of them, Frith gave a fierce desire to hunt and slay the children of El-Ahrairah.”
When Fiver, a young rabbit foresees a terrible tragedy befalling the warren, he tries to warn the leader that they must all flee to avoid destruction. He is rebuffed, but his brother, Hazel, and a few fellow rabbits take heed of his vision and flee the safety of their warren in search of safer, higher ground. Through the dangers of the forest, the vulnerability of open fields, and snared grounds where deadly dangers lay in wait, they search for their new home against all odds.
From the surprising first novel by Richard Adams – based on the stories he would tell his daughters on long car journeys – director Martin Rosen extracts the heart and beautiful complexities at the center of the mature, melancholic and meaningful tale. The animated medium often signals warm, family-friendly affairs, and though Watership down is indeed a family film, its warmth and friendliness are born of deeper matters than the simple joys of talking animals overcoming challenges. Consider The Fox and the Hound which Disney released just a few years after Watership Down. The smooth animation, surface danger, and bloodless fights offered in that disappointing Disney tale offer shallow insight into the domain of the western animal kingdom, and offer little beyond the notion of enduring friendship. But throughout Watership Down, the realities of life in nature are never shielded. The eventuality of death never ignored, nor the burden of perpetual threats from predators and dangerous environments glossed over. Death maintains a broody shadow throughout Watership Down. It is a defining motif, but one should not see this film as too dark to enjoy, too brooding to celebrate, or too ‘real’ to allow family, old and young, to escape into its world created and come to know and love the brave, adventurous souls at the center of the story. Watership Down simply asks more of a viewer than standard fare, and in doing so, forms a fast, fascinating connection with Fiver (Richard Brier,) Hazel (John Hurt,) Bigwig (Michael Graham-Cox,) Pipkin (Roy Kinnear,) and the other genuinely absorbing characters.
The easy innocence of Richard Brier’s voice gives vulnerability and youth to Fiver (Brier would later voice Captain Broom, a new character, in the 1999 series based on the same book.) Brier, a fine comedic talent, is perhaps most notable for his roles as Tom Good in Good neighbors, and Martin Bryce on the wonderful Ever Decreasing Circles, and delights with his controlled vocal performance, but here, playing opposite the grounded but open-minded wisdom of Hazel, voiced with equal exception by John Hurt, we find we don’t giggle at the vocal befuddlement, but rather become drawn into the precognitive tales he spins, and his keen sense of danger. Fine talent support the film throughout, with Harry Andrews’ performance as the malicious, dictatorial General Woundwart, and the soft, assertiveness of Joss Ackland’s Black Rabbit being standout.
“Look. Look. That's the place for us. High, lonely hills, where the wind and the sound carry, and the ground's as dry as straw in a barn. That's where we ought to be. That's where we have to get to.”- Fiver
Though the author insists there were no intended allegories, what seeps through, apparently subconsciously in his tale, are allusions to the fight against tyranny, the seeking and securing of freedoms, and the instincts of free-will and survival. Through the years many different cultures and religions have found resonance from this tale to their lives. With no purposeful message in his work, beyond the struggle to survive in a dangerous world, Watership Down then is both open enough and familiar enough to find itself painted with the disparate, but wholly united, struggles of people everywhere. Fortunately, director Rosen allowed that imperative to breath in his adaptation.
The animation style is a wonderful element of the experience. Favoring shadows, nature is muddy and honest versus awash with bucolic dreaminess; a serious, supportive artistic choice for the story at hand. There is fluidity in how the animals – the rabbits, dogs, cats and birds in the story – move, with sufficient twitches and nervous dispositions for the travelling rabbits to depict them well. The opening animation, as Michael Hordern, the voice of Frith, establishes the unique mythology for Watership Down through narration, is of a markedly different style to the rest of the feature. As it tells the story of how the once unafraid rabbits were punished by the introduction of predatory species due to their over-population (to keep their numbers in check,) a mix of brighter colors, aboriginal art-inspired symbolism, and more playful tone stand in contrast to the realism of the rest of the story. It is suggested that this opening sequence was created by American animator John Hubley, who died shortly after parting ways with the production (rumored to have been over disagreements with directory Rosen.) Regardless, it is a fine, memorable introduction to the world inhabited by animals in the rural wonder of the English countryside.
Criterion presents Watership Down in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film was given a new high-definition transfer “created from the 35mm original camera negative at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank CA.”
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The image quality is superb, though you may notice some small marks on the animation cells themselves (small dots that will move as the action pans or zooms.) These aren’t distracting, and are the lone imperfections that warrant mentioning. The color scheme is beautifully balanced, with the muddy brown tones dominating, countered with misty blues and muted greens where the moment demands. I first saw Watership Down on VHS, likely just after it was released on that format in the early 1980s, and I have seen it from time to time on television over the year (and from the original DVD version released by Warner Bros.,) and seeing the Criterion version, with its clarity of image, stability, and freshness, is a real gift.
The stereo soundtrack, “remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm negative track” is excellent, with no sign of hiss, pops, cracks or other audio imperfections. The 2.0 stereo track provides the music, a vitally important element of the film, a superb presentation. The score by Angela Morely is appropriately lush and subdued. The opening sequence, over the credits, reminds fondly of Morgenstemning by Edvard Hagerup Grieg (a very familiar pastoral classical piece,) and opens up with almost romantic passages during hopeful moments, and trembles appropriately when darkness and danger are prominent.
Audio Rating: 5/5
The soundtrack is also notable for the featured interlude mid-way through the film, as the majesty and inevitability of the Black Rabbit (death) dances across the screen to the haunting, yet hopeful sounds of "Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel.
A relatively brief collection of special-features that are surprisingly rich in content. The director’s recollection of the challenges in bringing the film to the screen (the conflicts he personally faced,) and the opinions of director Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth,) are particularly noteworthy.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
New Interview with Director Mark Rosen
New Interview with Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro about the film’s importance in animation history
Picture-in-picture storyboards for the entire film
Defining a Style: 2005 featurette about the film’s aesthetic
Booklet featuring essay by Comic Book writer Gerard Jones.
I was very young when I first saw Watership Down and remember crying terribly during at one particular moment in the film. I was young enough to be frightened deeply by the dark tones of the film, and young enough to be enamored and captured intently by the lives and vividness of the characters. I formed a connection to this film and this story, one that ran impossibly deep during my youth. Now, as I approach 40, I still hold a strong fondness for this film.
Overall Rating: 4/5
The challenge for me now, as a fan of the film and the father to a wonderful little boy who will turn three very soon, is how long I should wait before showing him the film. I suspect that it’s a number of years off as the film, important for children to see when the time is right, can be quite frank and frightening. But like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, and a host of other films and television series that I am looking forward to sharing with my son, Watership Down is a film that I eagerly await the right moment to spin for us one rainy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps on one of our trips back home to England, so we can take a short drive when the film is over to visit the lush, natural wonder of the Hampshire countryside.
Reviewed By: Neil Middlemiss
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