Review by Gordon Justesen
Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, Harry
Andrews, Joss Ackland
Director: Martin Rosen
Audio: PCM Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 92 Minutes
Release Date: February 24, 2015
ďSo cold...so very cold...Ē
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 couldnít 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, Iíve gone on to hear all of the acclaim surrounding the film and the book upon which itís based, and my desire to see it would increase year after year. I then got to experience the film on a terrific DVD release seven years ago. Now, the film looks more grand than ever thanks to an astounding Blu-ray from Criterion, the exact studio that should be handling the release of a film like this!
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 canít think of another film that is simultaneously more engaging, dark and movingÖcertainly outside of Disney fare, but I donít 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 donít 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 doesnít 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 canít argue the fact of the film being a bit of a downer at points. Itís 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 to say that it certainly has the most blood and violence Iíve seen in a PG rated animated film.
And Iíve heard that some of the images in this film were too much for viewers to handle, no matter how old you were. Iím 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 whoís 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 thereís 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 Adamsí 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, Iíve heard this film is a walk in the park compared to the next animated feature from Rosen and his animated team, 1982ís The Plague Dogs. That was also adapted from a Richard Adams book, and from Iíve 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 youíre 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. Now that it has graced the Blu-ray format, there couldnít be a better time to discover it!
Criterion hasnít released may animated films under their name, so when they do you know itís got to be something grand and special. As I mentioned earlier, a film like this is should only be handled by the likes of Criterion, and they have done an incredibly splendid job in presenting this hand drawn animated masterpiece in a superb HD format! The color pallette of the film is key to the filmís visual glory, and the presentation honors this notion brilliantly from beginning to end! Grain has been kept in tact in addition to the image detail getting a remarkable enhancement! Without question, this is a Blu-ray presentation that you wonít be able to take your eyes off of!
The 2.0 PCM mix elevates the already impressive sound mix on the previous DVD release. The music score, in particular, sounds more phenomenal than ever, especially the opening bit of music that plays during the opening prologue. Dialogue delivery is very much in clear and crisp quality, and thereís a nice level of balance between dialogue, music and background noise.
This area also gets a triumphant upgrade in the supplements area thanks to the fine folks at Criterion. To start with, thereís a new interview with director Martin Rosen, as well as a most terrific interview with director Guillermo del Toro about the filmís important place in animation history. We also get a neat Picture-in-Picture storyboard presentation, and an additional featurette regarding the filmís aesthetic. Rounding out the package is a Trailer and a terrific booklet featuring an essay by comic book writer Gerard Jones.
I canít 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 donít think weíll ever get one like it again. Itís a thoroughly gripping and intense film, with remarkable undertones and beautiful imagery lingering throughout. A pure classic has now made it to a most terrific Criterion Blu-ray!