Review by Gordon Justesen
Voices: John Hurt, Richard
Briers, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry Andrews, Joss
Director: Martin Rosen
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2008
“If we meet again, Hazel-rah, we’ll have the makings of the best story ever.”
“And you’ll be the one to tell it.”
Working at a video store many years ago, I came across a uniquely looking title in the family section. I mentioned the movie to a fellow employee, who then told me she couldn’t believe it was in the family section, simply because it was one of the most depressing films she had ever seen. The name of the movie was Watership Down.
Since then, I’ve gone on to hear all of the acclaim surrounding the film and the book upon which it’s based, and my desire to see it would increase year after year. So when I got news of this new DVD release, I was filled from head to toe with anticipation. Problem was…I had neglected to take notice of the fact that it had been available on DVD since 2002.
At any rate, I finally got to sit down and experience one of the most cherished animated films in history, and friends let me say that all of the immense acclaim towards the film is more than well justified. Watership Down is a most powerful experience, and in the realm of traditional hand drawn animated films, I can’t think of another film that is simultaneously more engaging, dark and moving…certainly outside of Disney fare, but I don’t think they went to such grim lengths like this one.
Further more, this film reminded me that hand drawn animation is just as remarkably powerful in creating a certain mood to a story as computer animation is. The illustrative style here is so rich with the kind of detail we don’t get in most animated films today. That quality, along with the wonderful characters and thoroughly gripping story blend to make what is simply one of the finest animated features of all time.
Based on the beloved novel by Richard Adams, the story centers on a band of rabbits who go up against numerous forces in order to survive. It all starts when a rabbit named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) has a frightening vision. What he sees is the promise of total destruction to the warren where he and the rest of his clan live.
Fiver then tells of his vision to older brother, Hazel (voiced by John Hurt), who then tries to convince the chief of their clan that they need to evacuate immediately. When that negotiation doesn’t go over so well, Hazel devises a plan of his own to gather the band and vacate to new area of land worth settling. And judging by the natural and predatory forces that stand in their way, the journey will indeed become something of a struggle.
I can’t argue the fact of the film being a bit of a downer at points. It’s not so much an extravagantly depressing film, but if you compared it to any other animated feature at the time (most of which were from Disney) then it would definitely seem like it was. I can instantly go on record and say that is certainly the most blood and violence I’ve seen in a PG rated animated film.
And I’ve heard that some of the images in this film were too much for viewers to handle, no matter how old you were. I’m not going to lie, there were some character designs here that really made my skin crawl at first. One such moment was the appearance of several rats looking to feast on some sleeping rabbits.
And anyone who’s seen the film knows which character is hard to even gaze upon. That would be the villain of the story, the bloodthirsty General Woundwort (voiced by Harry Andrews). Believe me when I tell you that this character is the animated equivalent of Darth Vader in terms of just how bone-chilling the sight of him is.
But there’s a good reason that the movie is the way it is. The director, Martin Rosen (who had never directed any type of feature before), was a beloved fan of the original novel and wanted to stay true to the tone of Richard Adams’ story, a widely adored book. As expected, no major studio wanted to touch the project (the story of how the film managed to get released, which is revealed in one of the extras, is most fascinating).
However, I’ve heard this film is a walk in the park compared to the next animated feature from Rosen and his animated team, 1982’s The Plague Dogs. That was also adapted from a Richard Adams book, and from I’ve been told it carries a downtrodden tone from beginning to end, where as Watership Down has occasional moments of comic relief. It was even re-rated PG-13 later down the road due to the grim content.
As it stands, Watership Down is simply an amazing experience of a movie. If you’re a devoted lover of animated films and you still have not yet seen this one, you owe it to yourself to discover one of the greatest films to ever emerge from the genre. And as far as family viewing is concerned, I do think this is an ideal choice for families to watch together, but not so much for kids to watch by themselves.
Because I was aware of how old the movie was and what kind of animation was used, I wasn’t exactly expecting the marvelous presentation I got from this Warner release. The anamorphic picture is striking in the way it brings the many detailed images of the movie to complete life. And the overall condition of the source material is quite perfect. I can certainly say that this is one of the bigger surprises of the year as far as video quality is concerned.
I was also quite amazed by the high quality of sound provided simply by a 2.0 stereo mix. The music score, in particular, sounded phenomenal, especially the opening bit of music that plays during a prologue. Dialogue delivery is very much in clear and crisp quality, and there’s a nice level of balance between dialogue, music and background noise.
Although three basic extras may not seem like an appropriate amount for a “Deluxe Edition” release, the two documentaries, “Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers” and “Defining a Style” are both terrific in the amount of detail they provide. The first features director Martin Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings reflecting on how the film came together. The second includes interviews with several of the key animators. Lastly, there are Storyboard Comparisons for four sequences in the film.
I can’t find any better way to sum up this film. Watership Down is without question a watershed movie in the realm of animated movies. There was never a feature like it before, and I don’t think we’ll ever get one like it again. It’s a thoroughly gripping and intense film, with remarkable undertones and beautiful imagery lingering throughout. A pure classic!