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Peter T Chattaway

Watership Down

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I have nothing to add to these earlier ruminations, but since I watched this film again last night, I felt like passing along these notes I had written after the last time I saw the film, a year ago:

- - -

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onfilm/message/5174

Finally watched my Watership Down DVD last night. It holds up pretty well, after all these years, I think. The animation's not as slick as we might expect these days, but it's quite artful in its own way; it's an interesting mix of naturalism and abstraction. And the story gets into some very interesting themes, some of which I think I appreciate now much more than I did when I was younger -- although, as far as the plot mechanics go, I think the film could have been just a bit less confusing in its treatment of the subplot concerning General Woundwort's warren.

(Consider how we are introduced to the warren, which comes up half-way into the film. All this time, we have been following Hazel and his group of rabbits; they are the ones we identify with. Suddenly Captain Holly appears out of nowhere, wounded, and faints in their presence. As he lies there, we suddenly get a flashback to HIS experiences with Woundwort's warren ... and the device doesn't quite work, for two reasons: (1) we haven't yet come to identify with Holly all that much, and (2) Holly is not passing this information on to the rabbits that we DO identify with, so it's a little odd that the film should be passing this on to us ... especially when the film goes on to REPEAT some of this information later on, when Holly DOES tell the rabbits about Woundwort. There is also some stuff later on about a rabbit being chased by a "homba", and if you weren't a fan of the novel to start with, and if you didn't know the rabbit vocabulary before you saw the film, you might not know that they were referring to a fox; I thought they might have been talking about the train that ran over two of Woundwort's soldiers when Holly escaped. I can remember reading the book 20 years ago, and I recall thinking it was a lot, lot easier to follow this part of the story there than in the film.)

Anyway, back to the good stuff. I had forgotten how soaked in religion this film was. Yes, of course, I remembered that wonderful creation myth that opens the story (it is EXACTLY the sort of creation myth you'd expect a rabbit to tell -- it explains where they came from, why they have so many enemies, why their strength is to be found in their legs, etc.), and I remembered those haunting images of the Black Rabbit of Death leading Fiver to Hazel's hiding spot and then, at the end, taking Hazel into the afterlife. (As a child, I wished I could become a spirit and soar with my Lord over the earth like that.) But I had forgotten the scene where Hazel tries to make a deal with the sun-god Frith, offering to trade his life for the lives of his warren, and Frith replies to him that "there is no bargain -- what is, is what must be." I had also forgotten how one of the signs that Cowslip's warren was a bad and dangerous place was the fact that Cowslip and his fatalistic friends had lost interest in the rabbits' religion, and in stories of El-ahrairah, the first rabbit created by Frith. And I had forgotten how Bigwig, when he hears Holly's frail voice calling his name in the distance, mistakes it for the voice of the Black Rabbit and fearfully prepares to submit to his own death.

True faith and false superstition are mixed throughout this film, and you're sometimes not quite sure which is which. Holly says he managed to escape from Woundwort's warren because "Frith sent one of his messengers" to kill those soldiers of Woundwort's who were chasing him -- that is, a train came and killed the rabbits who were pursuing Holly across the tracks. Is Holly reading divine guidance into mere happenstance? Or is it possible Frith was really behind that incident, and used a human construction to intervene in the lives of the rabbits? (Interestingly, the rabbits' creation myth never says anything about the creation of humans -- are we just another animal predator to the rabbits, or do even the rabbits recognize that there is something different about us?) Bigwig, the guy who trusts his own muscle, expresses his fear of the Black Rabbit in almost superstitious terms; but Fiver, the frail seer, follows the Black Rabbit to the spot where Hazel is still clinging to life (so the Black Rabbit's presence does NOT always signify death!); and when Hazel meets the Black Rabbit at the end, it is almost as though he is meeting an old friend for the first time. But then, that's partly because we discover the Black Rabbit ALSO seems to be the spirit of El-ahrairah, whose arrogance caused Frith to give the rabbits so many enemies, at least according to the rabbits' creation myth. In that same myth, we are told that El-ahrairah himself SAW the Black Rabbit of Death, and became afraid; but at the end, El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit apparently turn out to be one and the same. Has their later, superstitious fear of death worked its way into the rabbits' collective account of their origins?

There are biblical overtones throughout this story. Fiver has a vision of death and leads his group away from their home without a clear sense of where they're going; there is something of Abram's journey away from Ur and Haran in this, and the scenes in which the rabbits grumble that they're lost and hungry and they want to go back echo the grumblings of the Hebrews who followed Moses into the desert. The emphasis on rabbits and their cunning also evokes the tricks played by Jacob/Israel.

I watched this DVD with my sister and a couple friends of hers, one of whom had never seen the film before, and she kept expressing her surprise that we Chattaways had grown up watching a cartoon that was so bloody -- not just violent, as most cartoons are (including Disney's), but actually kinda gory. Blood drips from the mouths of various animals after they've made a kill, and the rabbits themselves get into some pretty fierce fights, scratching and biting and tearing each others' ears. This is one of those rare cartoons, like the 'Rites of Spring' sequence in Fantasia, that depicts nature "red in tooth and claw" without apology -- and that was one of the reasons I LIKED the film when I was young, actually.

Anyway, it was good to see this film again, after so many years. And if anyone here hasn't seen it yet, I do recommend giving it a peek.

- - -

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onfilm/message/5190

[ snip ]

My sister and her friends kept saying "You STUPID BUNNY!" to each other after the video was over. Me, I wondered for the first time how the rabbits could have been blind, even temporarily, to the fact that there were no women around; but then I remembered that the rabbits have mating seasons. Presumably they just weren't "in the mood" at that point. smile.gif

Something else I noticed as I watched the film was the way Kehaar, the bird, is often seen plucking insects out of the air and devouring them -- in one early scene, we see a couple of butterflies fluttering gracefully, and just as we're thinking, "Oh, how beautiful," Kehaar snatches one and swallows it. And the film is so CASUAL in the way it depicts this. This, of course, is just the way animals are -- but that juxtaposition of beauty and death, that willingness to regard a beautiful animal as just another meal, is not the sort of thing we often see in cartoons.

I also find it intriguing how SOME of the non-rabbits, like cats and birds, are anthropomorphized -- that is, they talk and have dialogue just like the rabbits do -- while OTHERS, like dogs and owls, aren't.

FWIW, I also like that scene by the river, where Hazel's leadership really begins to show itself for the first time. At that point in the story, nobody has really emerged as a leader yet -- Fiver is the one who had the vision, but he's too frail, and Bigwig is the one who has the most muscle, but he hasn't got the vision, in that other sense of the word. The rabbits are pretty much a loose gang who have left their own warren but haven't set up an alternative government of their own yet, and Hazel himself isn't much more than the brother of the rabbit who had the vision. But when Bigwig says the rabbits who can't swim will have to fend for themselves, Hazel says, "That's not good enough," and he quickly finds a way to harness Blackberry's cleverness and Bigwig's strength for the good of ALL rabbits. Hazel is the one who has the moral stature, the vision (in at least the second sense of the word), the tactical cunning, and the rapport with others that makes him a great leader, and that scene is the first time you see these qualities begin to come together, I think.

- - -

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onfilm/message/5196

[ snip ]

The day after my sister came over and watched Watership Down, a friend of mine came over, spotted the DVD on my shelf, and said he'd like to watch it ... but I told him I had just seen it. Then he noticed I had Disney's Black Cauldron, and since he's a big fan of Lloyd Alexander's novels and he had never seen the film, he asked if we could watch a bit of it. So we did ... and hey, John Hurt does the voice of the Horned King! And then it dawned on us, John Hurt also did the voice of Aragorn in the animated Lord of the Rings, which also came out back around then.

And wait, what's this? The IMDB says there was a 1999 TV series based on Watership Down ... and John Hurt did the voice of General Woundwort! Richard Briers, who provided the voice of Fiver in the 1978 film, also does the voice of a rabbit named Captain Broom in the 1999 series.

http://us.imdb.com/Details?0211882

- - -

Earlier threads on this film (in which I make many of the same points I make here -- I freely admit to plagiarizing myself) can be found here and here.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Potentially good news for fans (especially Jeff)...

New DVD release on October 7 from Warner Home Video.

Hopefully they'll do it better justice than the existing edition.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Wow!

I wonder what makes it a "deluxe" edition. What kind of extras could they include?

Hopefully it's more like this Region 4 edition with a full commentary, than this unremarkable-extras edition.

UPDATE: Argh! Nope, it's that rip-off of a "deluxe" version, without the commentary that those lucky Brits enjoy.

Sigh.

Well... at least it's a widescreen edition.


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Overstreet wrote:

: Argh! Nope, it's that rip-off of a "deluxe" version, without the commentary that those lucky Brits enjoy.

Bummer. And it seems to be missing the few extras that are on the existing DVD, too.

: Well... at least it's a widescreen edition.

Well, so is the existing DVD. Though this might be a new transfer. Then again, sometimes new transfers aren't as good as the old transfers, so who knows, even THAT might not be a selling point in the end.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Scott MacDonald @ AV Club:

There has never been a more uncompromising producer of animated children’s fare than Martin Rosen’s Nepenthe Productions. The American-born, U.K.-based Rosen directed only two animated features, both of them based on animal adventure novels by Richard Adams, and they are like nothing seen before or since. When people talk about Pixar features as if they’re the height of maturity in children’s films, I want to sit them right down and make them watch Watership Down or The Plague Dogs. Either would leave them sucking their thumbs in the fetal position. . . .

A handful of children’s films actually have the power to make those who watch them grow, and Watership Down, with its moments of brutal Darwinian violence and overarching mood of sadness and loss, forces young viewers to rise up to it. The movie says, essentially, “You need to know these things now. You’re old enough.” After it was over, the whole world felt somehow sadder to me, and lonelier. The trade-off, of course, was that I’d been shown something previously hidden, something I would have to learn about sooner or later anyway. That’s the conundrum of all the best children’s films: They help you to leave childhood behind.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Scott MacDonald @ AV Club…

 

A handful of children’s films actually have the power to make those who watch them grow, and Watership Down, with its moments of brutal Darwinian violence and overarching mood of sadness and loss, forces young viewers to rise up to it. The movie says, essentially, “You need to know these things now. You’re old enough.” After it was over, the whole world felt somehow sadder to me, and lonelier. The trade-off, of course, was that I’d been shown something previously hidden, something I would have to learn about sooner or later anyway. That’s the conundrum of all the best children’s films: They help you to leave childhood behind.

 

MacDonald's "conundrum" and his emphasis on loss seems a tad reductionistic to me. If the best children's films were all about leaving childhood behind, what would they have to offer those of us who have long since done so? 

 

Don't "the best children's films" bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood? In that sense, I guess they help children leave childhood behind. But they also offer adults access to childhood. 

 

Yes, Watership Down's frankness about "nature red in tooth and claw" is certainly part of the film's power. But there is also mystery and wonder and meaning — all of which come naturally and easily to children, who see magic everywhere, but which modern adults are not disposed to see in the lives of rodents. Adults who have "grown up in the wrong way," as C. S. Lewis put it, will find in Watership Down a powerful corrective. 


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Criterion is releasing this film as an iTunes download. Wait... just a download? No disc?


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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[blink]

 

From my review, recently revised and reposted: 

 

2014 Update: Oh how I wish someone would re-release Watership Down on Region 1 blu-ray in a format that captures the vivid beauty of the theatrical release. The current American DVDs show that they were produced from a worn and faded print. Attention, lords of the Criterion Collection! Save this timeless, exemplary work!

 

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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So, if you were suddenly interested in introducing your kids to this film (they should probably read the book first, but that's not going to happen anytime soon), would you wait for the Criterion edition or find one of the previous DVDs or other video releases? I'm not sure how much kids care about presentation; I, on the other hand, am inclined to hold out for the best, especially given that my kids have never actively asked me about this film or expressed a desire to see it. In other words, they can wait. I'm the one who's suddenly eager to revisit this film, which I saw as a young teen but haven't seen since. (I did read the book in junior high, or early high school.)

 

Hey, I think I've just answered my own question.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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It's too bad the Criterion edition won't include The Plague Dogs (another Martin Rosen film based on a Richard Adams novel) as a bonus feature, a la the way the Criterion edition of Stanley Kubrick's The Killing included Killer's Kiss as a bonus feature. Some films just don't have the fanbase that merits an independent Blu-Ray release, but fans of the directors' *other* films might want to see the less-popular films for "context", etc.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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The Criterion website has an excellent essay on the film by Gerard Jones, who wrote the book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence and some of my favorite Green Lantern comics.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Many years ago I wrote a not very interesting capsule review of Watership Down which somehow fell by the wayside as so many of my not very interesting capsule reviews have not done. (I think it slipped through the cracks in the original conversion of Decent Films from static files to dynamic content.)
 
Thankfully, today I am able to replace it with a full review (written for print, so still short for me) that I hope is more interesting. 
 

Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a masterful epic about rabbits, occupies a space somewhere between The Wind in the Willows and The Once and Future King, though it is more naturalistic and less whimsical than either. The 1978 British animated adaptation written and directed by Martin Rosen—gratifyingly true both to the letter and the spirit of Adams’ novel—is a singular achievement in English-language animation: a thematically and emotionally rich cartoon about talking animals untouched by sentiment and cutesiness.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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I got the Criterion blu-ray and finally saw this, spurred on by SDG's review. What a great achievement, not just as a film but especially as an adaptation: you might expect an adaptation of a book like Watership Down (which I've loved for 12 or 13 years) to be of the kind that you can only appreciate by forgetting the book exists, but no. Its moderate length (90 minutes or so) only makes it more impressive.

 

I liked the interview with Martin Rosen, where he explains that he had never done any animation before and had to learn it on the fly while directing the film.

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I agree with what Del Toro says in the Criterion blu-ray's extras.  The film has some noticeable technical flaws in the animation.  But even that somehow works with the film, at least it certainly doesn't take away from the film being a masterpiece.

 

But what really works with this film artistically is the backgrounds and the related design choices.  They really give atmosphere.  I found some of them to be quite appealing.

Edited by Attica

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I got the Criterion blu-ray and finally saw this, spurred on by SDG's review. What a great achievement, not just as a film but especially as an adaptation: you might expect an adaptation of a book like Watership Down (which I've loved for 12 or 13 years) to be of the kind that you can only appreciate by forgetting the book exists, but no. Its moderate length (90 minutes or so) only makes it more impressive.

 

Awesome. Glad I helped spur someone to discover this film. 

 

BTW, I notice now that my post above mentioning my new review doesn't actually link to it. So here it is


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Finally introduced this film to my kids yesterday. Thought the image looked a little overcropped on the top and bottom (we were watching the 2002 Warner DVD). Decided to check out the Criterion edition via the screen captures at DVD Beaver. The Criterion disc is even worse -- it's got even less "information" on the bottom and both sides (and possibly even on the top, though I'm not sure about that).

The one thing the Warner disc does get right is the end credits, which have black bars on the sides; if they had cropped the credits at the top and bottom like they crop everything else, some of the names might have gone missing. I wonder how Criterion handled those.

 

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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