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DVD SAVANT

Watership Down
Deluxe Edition


Watership Down
Warner DVD
1978 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 min. / Street date March 26, 2002 / 19.98
Starring the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Ralph Richardson, Terence Rigby, Roy Kinnear, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Nigel Hawthorne, Michael Hordern, Joss Ackland
Film Editor
Terry Rawlings
Original Music Angela Morley, Mike Batt
Written by Martin Rosen from the novel by Richard Adams
Produced and Directed by Martin Rosen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Feature animation was in a real slump in the decade before the revival sparked by The Little Mermaid (1989). Disney offerings verged on the pitiful, and with the exception of one-shots like Heavy Metal few producers approached the format with anything interesting in mind. Adapted from Richard Adams' serious adult bestseller, Watership Down dared to be different in a way that almost guaranteed box office failure. Beautifully designed and animated, it made no concessions to the kiddie cartoon market. Its story of survival and bravery among rabbit warrens in the English countryside has more in common with Mad Max than Peter Rabbit. It's the harrowing tale of a few daring hares journeying in hopes of finding a home of their own.

Watership Down became a solid success in the United Kingdom and a favorite on American home video. Warner DVD follows up its earlier plainwrap release with a Deluxe Edition that highlights a pair of fine interview documentaries.

Synopsis:

Crowded and unhappy in his regimented warren, Hazel (Voice: John Hurt) leads a group of similarly disenchanted rabbits in search of a new home. Fiver (Voice: Richard Briers) foresees dangers and locates a perfect hilltop; but they are threatened by a nearby warren more dictatorial than the one they left. Needing mates that only their enemies can provide, the rabbits prevail only through their wits and courage.

Watership Down creates a fascinating world of rabbits oppressed by the patriarchal dictatorships in their underground warren communities. The rabbits here are by no means cute bunny characters - they're hard-bitten veterans and hopeful souls struggling against harsh realities. Prey for half the animals of creation, speed and cunning are their only defenses. The story begins by proposing an interesting creation myth for a rabbit-centric universe, in which the rabbit species must forever atone for the original sin of pride.

The story seems to be about humanity's struggle for basic security but what we see is too compelling to become a simple allegory. Watership Down gets us interested in its heroes and their problems. Regimented and militarized, the warren is policed by its aged leader's personal soldiers. Only an elite few male rabbits are allowed to mate, with the leader siring many of the offspring.  1 Simple conversation can be interpreted as conspiratorial talk, punishable by expulsion into the deadly outside world. A significant amount of animated blood is spilled, as the rabbits are fierce and cruel fighters. Forget The Night of the Lepus and Monty Python and the Holy Grail: in this show You Will Believe a Bunny can Kill.

In the very first scene, prophet bunny Fiver has a vision of the sunset spreading blood across their meadow. Bloody death and merciless killing are almost an everyday part of this world -- many a college-age adult remembers being scared out of their socks by Watership Down when they saw it for the first time. Nature is presented not as the Disney version but for what it is: wonderful, adventurous, but very dangerous.

Fed up with their overpopulated burrows, a pack of rebel heroes decides to 'emigrate' across the hedgerows to a promising hilltop where a new warren can be established. Along the way they meet a number of other creatures who help them, including a charming Russian seagull with bad pronunciation, who shouts his opinions: "Silly Bunnies - where are your mates? No mates, no eggs, no eggs, no chicks!"

Being cute is no guarantee of survival as characters are killed off or disappear into unknown fates with a naturalistic randomness not usually found in children's fare. An attempt to liberate some prospective female rabbits from a farm (these heroes clearly have one-track minds) doesn't turn out at all well. Our group becomes entangled with a hostile neighboring warren that's even more brutal than the one they fled.

Watership Down is so successful in pulling us into its struggle for survival that one sequence takes us totally by surprise. The passing of a main character summons a vision of the Black Rabbit of Death, from the rabbit deity myth. To a genuinely creepy tune sung by Art Garfunkel, Bright Eyes, the Black Rabbit searches for a suffering soul to convey to the next life. The effect is quite jarring.

The voices have appropriate English accents, but are always clear -- you won't need the subtitles. John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, and Denholm Elliot are each recognizable, and assay their roles with precision and delicacy. Zero Mostel is a lot less understandable, but very funny as the voice of the Russki seagull . The animals are warm, courageous, weak, threatening, trusting -- the whole gamut of human expression. It's refreshing to see an animated feature constructed from principles alien to the Disney worldview. There's a tendency to reach for an Animal Farm - like analog for the show. Is this a retelling of the Jewish diaspora? Deep analysis isn't necessary. Watership Down is about nature, survival, life and death, as simple as that.

Exciting, funny, suspenseful and unlike any animated feature ever made, Watership Down is a favorite around the Savant household. It so fascinated my youngest son when he was eleven years old, that he read the (rather thick) book from cover to cover, an important first literary experience.


Warner's DVD of Watership Down is a fine entertainment. The enhanced image captures all the beauty of the watercolor backgrounds and the fine points of the animation. The audio is forceful and sharp, with Angela Morley's music especially delicately rendered.

The Deluxe Edition featurettes are illustrated interviews with writer-director-producer Martin Rosen and editor/sound editor Terry Rawlings. In A Conversation with the FIlmmakers we discover that neither had directed an animated feature film ... or any kind of feature film prior to this one. When no distributor thought it would do well, Rosen talked his backer into fronting their own distribution -- and wound up doing very well when the picture became a hit in the U.K.. A second featurette Defining a Style collects the remembrances of a number of animators and background artists. Longform animation had become rare in England and they all seem to have been eager to participate. A third extra compares the raw concept storyboards to scenes in the final picture.

The films is NOT for impressionable children ... but kids old enough to understand its story without becoming emotionally distraught will cherish it.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Watership Down (Deluxe Edition) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two featurettes, Storyboard comparison
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 24, 2008

Rewritten from an earlier review.



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.

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