Blu-Ray Review: Watership Down (Criterion) | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Watership Down Blu-ray

Studio: Criterion

Feb 13, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Watership Down features an incredibly violent, bloody fight scene; it’s even more remarkable considering that it’s an animated film about rabbits. The heroic Bigwig faces off against the cruel Woundwort, both combatants knowing full well the battle won’t end until one of them lies dead. The scene is graphic; ears are torn, teeth rip at throats and blood streams over their furry coats. Their mouths are ripped and bloody, having bit hanging flaps into one another’s lips. It’s as frightening as the final showdown in any action movie.

This is not a kids’ movie. Anyone familiar with the 1978 film or Richard Adams’ bestselling fable knows that already, but it’s still a necessary preface—sure enough, someone is bound to toss it on thinking it’s a cute bunny film, only to have their child traumatized by the blood foaming from a rabbit’s mouth as it’s caught in a hunter’s snare. Watership Down is a book about animals in the same way as Animal Farm; while the latter used animals to comment on social issues, the former created a world where animals had social issues of their own.

A young runt, Fiver, has a horrifying vision of blood flowing over the fields around his warren. He warns the other rabbits that they must leave, or they will be killed—the rabbit leader scoffs at his premonition, but a small group chooses to believe him. They flee the safety of their warren, pursued by the Owsla—the rabbit police force—toward a new home on a hill that came to Fiver in another vision. Led by Bigwig, an Owsla deserter, they adventure across the English countryside, in constant danger of being killed by bigger animals, humans, and even other rabbits.

Watership Down is a rather faithful adaptation of Adams’ book, as well as a milestone work of independent animation. Director Martin Rosen was a literary agent and budding producer who fell in love with the novel, and became fixed on adapting it for the cinemas. He wrote the screenplay, and hired animation legend John Hubley (former Disney animator and creator of Mr. Magoo) to direct the project. When Hubley passed away early into the film’s production, Rosen—who had never directed before—was forced to take his place. Because of the prestige surrounding the book, which had stood a long reign atop U.K. bestseller lists, Rosen had no trouble securing a fine voice cast, which included John Hurt and Zero Mostel. Art Garfunkel’s hit “Bright Eyes” first appeared on Watership Down’s soundtrack. The film was a resounding success, offering at the time what was a somewhat rare alternative to the formulaic animated features of Disney or Rankin/Bass. (And a slightly-less “adult” alternative to the adult animation being produced by Ralph Bakshi in the ‘70s.)

The film remains remarkable today for its distinctive, naturalistic style. The rabbits are only anthropomorphized by a small degree; save for the expressiveness in their eyes and their speaking, they look and move like real rabbits. Their world is presented as pastoral watercolor paintings. Save for a few abstract sequences and a hyper-stylized introduction, the movie sticks to its beautiful, semi-realistic format which, of course, looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray.

Criterion’s Watership Down is essential for animation fans. It looks great, but the accompanying material is just as strong. Filmmaker and fan Guillermo del Toro provides an introduction, gushing love for the film and elaborating at length on its uniqueness as an animated work. There’s also an illustrated interview with Rosen which provides an in-depth history of the production, and a documentary with five of the film’s animators talking about how they arrived at its individual style. Those interested can then watch the film alongside picture-in-picture storyboards, or check out the original theatrical trailer. Save for the storyboards, all of the bonus materials can be watched in roughly an hour. They leave few stones unturned, however, and provide an outstanding overview of Watership Down’s development and its creators’ history. Sometimes Criterion have the ability to overwhelm viewers with the sheer amount of back material they provide on their discs. Here, they’ve hit the exact right amount for the particular movie—it’s easy to watch all of the bonus features immediately following the film and not exhaust yourself.

Author rating: 8.5/10

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