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Watership Down: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // PG // February 24, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted February 6, 2015 | E-mail the Author

It's not every day that animated films---especially those featuring furry woodland critters---delve into extensive mythologies, introduce us to multi-layered characters, and manage to insert a genuine sense of danger into the story; then again, Martin Rosen's Watership Down (1978) isn't your average animated film. Based on Richard Adams' eponymous 1972 novel, this tale of rabbits and their struggle for survival has captivated and terrified fans of all ages for over three decades. Produced on a shoestring budget, Rosen's passion project beat just about every conceivable odd to become a true genre if this is your first introduction to it, you're in for no shortage of surprises.

New viewers will want a quick synopsis, so here goes: Watership Down, both the film and the original book, is about a group of animals in peril...but that's just the tip of the iceberg: our story is prefaced by the mythology of this particular world, which was created by the sun god Frith. Our rabbits serve as "the hunted", but they're equipped with the necessary skills to evade their predators. One rabbit named Fiver, who's also something of a prophet, serves as the unofficial main character of the story; along with his older brother Hazel, he predicts the last days of their relatively peaceful stomping grounds. After a struggle with their leader and his "military group", Fiver and a handful of friends manage to head for higher ground. From here on out, it's a tense struggle for shelter, safety and survival...but with enemies at almost every turn, it soon becomes clear that most of these rabbits won't survive the journey.

Rendered in a detailed, expressive style, Watership Down's distinct visuals are one of its greatest strengths. Foreground and background objects blend seamlessly in this colorful world, which features as many bold, frightening tones as it does pastel landscapes. These colors are vitally important to the film's oppressive but captivating atmosphere. Red isn't just "red" and brown isn't just "brown"; there are countless variances in Watership Down's palette and they don't go unnoticed. The characters' semi-realistic appearances would also be a problem in lesser hands; the rabbits look fairly similar at first glance, but their visual differences are handled skillfully. The strong and varied voice cast also helps, featuring the likes of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Denholm Elliott, Joss Ackland, and Zero Mostel (in his final film role), just to name a few. Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson's score also supports the film does the memorable hit "Bright Eyes", written by Mike Batt and performed by Art Garfunkel.

More than anything else, it's Watership Down's mood that holds everything together. The dark atmosphere of Adams' book is left completely intact...and unlike the later Rosen-produced UK animated series (1999-2001), an almost continuous sense of dread can be felt as danger draws near. As in the natural world, violence is inevitable; here, the anthropomorphous characters have names and personalities, so the sudden loss of a character often feels more traumatic. For obvious reasons, Watership Down is not a film to pop in as a virtual baby-sitter. This is a sophisticated project with a clear message, so those unsure of a child's ability to handle such delicate subject matter are encouraged to view it beforehand. Ultimately, though, Watership Down will provide a rewarding experience to those who can handle it: this is animation at a deeper and more complex level than some may be used to, so those unfamiliar with the source material should expect a few surprises along the way. To make a long story short: Watership Down is a film to be shared and admired, as affecting and important now as it was more than 35 years ago.

First released on DVD by Warner Bros. in 2002, the original "snapper case" edition of Watership Down has since gone long out-of-print; the same goes for their 2006 Deluxe Edition, which offered an improved technical presentation and a handful of extras featuring Rosen and several of the original animators. Nearly a decade later, Criterion has raised the stakes considerably with this new Blu-ray package, which serves up terrific A/V specs and even more supplements (including one from the Deluxe Edition). Overall, this a pleasant surprise from a studio not known for their focus on animation: this marks Criterion's first release of a hand-drawn film since their 1992 Akira CAV laserdisc. With any luck, a Criterion Blu-ray of Rosen's brutally effective follow-up, The Plague Dogs (1982), won't be far behind.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Watership Down offers a substantial improvement over Warner Bros.' previous DVD releases. As mentioned earlier, the film's complex color palette is an extremely important part of the story and it's represented well here; additionally, the improved image detail and natural film grain add a great detal of texture. Black levels and shadow detail are strong, which comes in handy during many of the film's darker moments (of which there are many). Please note that this isn't the first time Watership Down has been released on Blu-ray: at least one Region B version exists...and to the best of my knowledge, this release was created using the same (or nearly identical) source transfer. Either way, die-hard fans will enjoy and appreciate the benefits of this Blu-ray; quite frankly, it couldn't have happened to a more deserving production.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

Not surprisingly, Criterion's Blu-ray plays it straight with an PCM 2.0 Stereo track that preserves the film's two-channel roots. Watership Down's audio is slightly underwhelming in direct comparison to the visuals, but this is likely due to budget issues and the era in which it was made. Plain and simple, the film has always sounded a little flat and unremarkable, though channel separation is often strong and the dialogue is balanced nicely with Malcolm Williamson's score and the background effects. Optional English subtitles are included during the main feature only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc set is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with artwork that replicates the original poster. The accompanying fold-out Insert features technical specs, credits, artwork, and an essay by comic book writer Gerard Jones.

Bonus Features

There's a nice selection of supplements here, mostly exclusive to this disc. The main attraction is a pair of Interviews featuring director Martin Rosen (17 minutes) and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (13 minutes). Obviously Rosen's conversation will be of more interest to die-hard fans, as the director serves up a number of valuable recollections and insights related to the film's difficult financing and production. Del Toro provides an outsider's perspective; the candid and enthusiastic filmmaker is obviously a long-time fan of Rosen's production, as it appears to have influenced him greatly. A shared commentary would've been interesting, but these are much appreciated.

A feature-length Storyboard Comparison is also available, which presents concept art during the opening "origin story" and hundreds of early drawings as the film unfolds. Please note that Warner Bros.' 2006 Deluxe Edition DVD included a partial storyboard comparison; it's not included here, but this substitute is more than acceptable.

Closing things out is the film's Theatrical Trailer, as well as a brief but enjoyable "Defining a Style" featurette ported over from the Deluxe DVD. This visually-themed segment features animators Alan Simpson & Colin White, background artists Denis Ryan & Gary Sycamore, and voice actor Joss Ackland ("Black Rabbit"). Those with an interest in the film's striking visual approach should enjoy this session, which is also filled with plenty of production info and early sketches. All bonus features are presented in 1080p but do not include optional subtitles or Closed Captions.

As a footnote, it's odd that the featurette with Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings (including on the Deluxe Edition DVD) has not been carried over. An audio commentary with Rosen that appeared on an international DVD release didn't make the cut either...but it's never been included on any domestic releases, so this is understandable.

Final Thoughts

Martin Rosen's Watership Down is a dark, disturbing, and essential slice of animation that's aged perfectly well during the last 37 years. Difficult to finance and distribute at home and abroad for obvious reasons, this passion project remains singular and supremely affecting, perhaps only rivaled by Rosen's own The Plague Dogs in its brutal depiction of nature at work. Whether you first watched it (accidentally?) as a young child or are entirely new to this production, the film's memorable visuals, voices, and music anchor the its ambitious story with energy to spare. Criterion's Blu-ray does the film justice, offering a rock-solid A/V presentation and a slightly thin but entirely appropriate collection of bonus features. Though new viewers may want to rent this one first (or at least do a bit more research), the obvious strength of this disc makes Watership Down a must-have for established fans. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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