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screenplay by Martin Rosen, based on the novel by Richard Adams
directed by Martin Rosen
by Walter Chaw Unsentimental and terrifying and set against lovely, John Constable-esque watercolour backgrounds, Martin Rosen's adaptation of the Richard Adams novel Watership Down arose in that extended lull between Disney's heyday and its late-Eighties resurrection. (This period also saw, in addition to Rosen's film of Adams's The Plague Dogs, Rankin & Bass's The Last Unicorn and Ralph Bakshi's most productive period, which included 1978's The Lord of the Rings.) Watership Down points to the dwindled potential for American animation to evolve into what anime has become: a mature medium for artistic expression of serious issues. A shame that this flawed piece is possibly the pinnacle of animation's ambition on these shores, Richard Linklater's recent Waking Life notwithstanding.
Following a group of rabbits convinced that the timid Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) has had a prophetic vision of doom for their warren, Watership Down is essentially about the search for refuge in the midst of a cruel world. A brilliant opening sequence by John Hubley details the creation myth of the rabbits, offering each animal on the planet a vicious gift and a taste for rabbit flesh that is protected only by a fleetness of foot and a highly developed community warning system. Though much can be made of the film's socio-political commentary, the Adams novel is far more fertile a source for such rumination; Rosen's film is refreshingly free of pretension and resists even the easy target of man's inhumanity to vermin. Watership Down is essentially a handsomely-mounted adventure sold with allegorical elements and a few sticky archetypes.
A struggle for freedom and an urgent search for mates with which to propagate their species, Watership Down boils survival down to its base elements. In so doing, it draws the link between survival and loyalty and friendship in the sharpest possible terms--the film is an exercise in primitivism that rings with the taint of simple but essential truths. Accordingly, there is a good deal of violence in Watership Down, with death striking suddenly and with tragic arbitrariness. For that frankness and honesty the picture may be more appropriate for young children than a legion of condescendingly sugarcoated Disney fare.
The problems with the film are twofold. On the one hand, Watership Down's character animation is shoddy, making some actions needlessly mysterious, and the principal figures largely indistinguishable from one another; on the other hand, the process of adaptation and compaction has resulted in a few rather abrupt scene changes. Above its shortcomings, Watership Down is haunting (particularly a near-death nightmare underscored by Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes" and the impressionistic fate of the hero-rabbits' warren) and unusually thoughtful for something produced in what is still thought of in the United States as a children's medium. A shame that save the rare aberration, in the Disney-dominated United States, animation still is.
Warner's 1.78:1 anamorphic DVD transfer of Watership Down was definitely struck from a degraded source, though the image is more than passable. A few lines and speckles now and again do little to distract from the essential beauty of the landscapes that are, in a very real way, the stars of the film. (The quality of the presentation is probably aided by the extremely limited palette employed by the filmmakers.) The Dolby 2.0 surround audio is nicely distributed in terms of music and even dialogue, while effects are unobtrusive and round out a full and clear listening experience. The disc finishes off with a trailer and short, text-based features that provide a glossary of rabbit terms, an extremely brief biography for author Adams, a nigh-useless tidbit regarding the fate of the down today, and cast & crew filmographies. Originally published: May 8, 2002.