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Watership Down: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Watership Down (1978) movie poster Watership Down

US Theatrical Release: November 1, 1978 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Martin Rosen / Writers: Richard Adams (novel), Martin Rosen (screenplay)

Voice Cast: John Hurt (Hazel), Richard Briers (Fiver), Michael Graham Cox (Bigwig), John Bennett (Captain Holly), Ralph Richardson (Chief Rabbit), Simon Cadell (Blackberry), Terence Rigby (Silver), Roy Kinnear (Pipkin), Richard O'Callaghan (Dandelion), Denholm Elliott (Cowslip), Lynn Farleigh (Cat), Mary Maddox (Clover), Zero Mostel (Kehaar), Harry Andrews (General Woundwort), Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Captain Campion), Clifton Jones (Blackavar), Derek Griffiths (Vervain), Michael Hordern (Frith), Joss Ackland (Black Rabbit), Michelle Price (Lucy)

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Animation is rarely used in films that aren't intended for children. Many of those few films are held in high regard, but they never enjoy the multi-generational cultural icon status
of Disney classics and other family films aided by childhood nostalgia.

On the other hand, adult-oriented animation can obtain prestige in another way. Watership Down has done that with its admission today into The Criterion Collection. Claiming spine number 748, Martin Rosen's 1978 British film adapted from Richard Adams' 1972 novel joins the ranks of esteemed works of art from the likes of Fellini, Renoir, Kurosawa, and Hitchcock. After a long time of shunning the medium, Criterion makes Watership the second animated film in the collection in a little over a year, following Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Like Fantastic, Watership centers on talking animals. Though you'd suspect a film populated primarily by talking bunny rabbits to be family-friendly, this is actually quite a strange and bleak tale. It's one thing for profound sadness to creep into a film children will enjoy, like Bambi and Charlotte's Web. It's another to present a universe full of blood, pain, and death where characters are systematically oppressed and endangered.

In "Watership Down", the rabbit Fiver foresees bad danger coming to his warren.

Watership opens with a creation story in which sun god Frith creates animals, including our focal rabbits, one of whom gets his bottom blessed. Targeted by predators, rabbits find strength and security in numbers and in avoiding other creatures as much as possible. One of these rabbits, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), senses a non-specific bad danger coming to the group's warren. Seeing a field filled with blood, he worries for the safety of his kind. He and friend Hazel (John Hurt) bring their concern to the Chief Rabbit, who dismisses their unease, particularly coming as it does in May, the rabbits' mating season.

The totalitarian chief orders these two and others who voice concerns to secretly be followed and watched. Fiver, Hazel, and a few others plan their exodus nonetheless and are stopped for spreading dissension and inciting to mutiny. Though they evade arrest, their journey is marked with danger both from predators and mankind. The rabbits do find an unlikely ally in Kehaar (the final credit of The Producers' Zero Mostel), an injured water bird with a thick accent.

Though Watership received a PG rating from the MPAA in 1978 (six years before the advent of PG-13), the same rating applied to most new theatrical animation, it is not a film you'd feel comfortable showing a young child. Even adults accustomed to more sophisticated methods of storytelling than the ones typically found in cartoons may not see the beauty in this dark story. Visually, there isn't much to distinguish one rabbit from another. They are portrayed uncharacteristically with a minimum of anthropomorphism. The mix of brown, tan and gray critters are not given features, personalities, physicalities or clothes to help them stand out, which makes it a little tough to follow the plot and to sympathize as intended. The world's two most common pets are depicted as deadly animals and, in contrast to woodland lore like Winnie the Pooh, there is very little warmth to the proceedings.

The rabbits find an unlikely ally in Kehaar, a sea gull with a thick accent.

Such qualities are bound to be celebrated by those who adore Watership Down as an honest alternative to most animation and animal-based storytelling. This unflinching allegory has thoughts on freedom, stifling ruling power, survival and revenge. It won't be mistaken for other animated films,
whether today's computer-animated comedies or even hand-drawn ones from its own era. Had the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature existed in 1978, it would probably for Watership's for the taking, but hardly anything else would even be eligible except Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings. With obviously no need for such an uncompetitive category back then, Watership had to settle for fringe recognition from the fantasy-minded Saturn and Hugo Awards.

Making his screenwriting and directing debut, Martin Rosen would follow up Watership with another dark adaptation of a Richard Adams novel in 1982's similarly respected and family-unfriendly The Plague Dogs. Rosen has done almost nothing else as a filmmaker besides these two movies and a UK-Canadian "Watership Down" TV series, which ran for three seasons at the turn of the millennium softening down the violence and adopting a more kid-oriented tone.

Watership Down: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 LPCM Stereo (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Also available as Criterion Collection DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video Previously released by Warner as Deluxe Edition DVD (October 7, 2008) and Full Screen DVD (March 26, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

A nearly 40-year-old British animated film is something you can imagine looking most unsightly, but not on Criterion's watch. The Blu-ray's 1.85:1 picture is far from the type of perfection encountered on Disney's transfers of animated films as old or even much older. Still, defects -- some small white specks and a faint flicker -- are kept to a minimum. And there can be no doubt that this lightly grainy presentation is true to Watership Down's original theatrical look. The visuals, particularly the watercolor backdrops, have a pastoral appeal to them.

Though dated by today's standards, the 2.0 LPCM stereo soundtrack does not suffer from any specific issues and presents dialogue, music (including the Art Garfunkel-performed "Bright Eyes"), and effects with clarity. English subtitles should clarify any uncertain phrase, like El-Ahrairah.

Martin Rosen, the director of "Watership Down", "The Plague Dogs" and almost nothing else, reflects on his debut in "Passion Project." Director Guillermo del Toro reveals himself a fan of "Watership Down", or at least its techniques, in "A Movie Miracle."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion's all-HD bonus features slate begins with two new interviews recorded in 2014.

"Passion Project: Martin Rosen on Watership Down" (16:21) lets the film's screenwriter-director-producer talk about making the film with no prior experience in animation and with no participation by author Richard Adams. His remarks are jazzed up with old production photos and artwork and other pertinent stills.

Next, "A Movie Miracle" (12:23) finds director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim) admiring the film mostly on a technical basis and putting it into the context of animation history.

"Watership Down" artists reflect on the movie in 2005's "Defining a Style." Watership Down's theatrical trailer makes multiple mentions of the best-selling book on which the movie is based.

The licensed 2005 featurette "Defining a Style" (12:34) lets animators and background artists reflect on their work on the film, their memories of production, and the film's significance decades later.

It's most unusual to encounter secondary subtitles on a Criterion release, but this disc has one of some value. It uses that track for a picture-in-picture storyboards overlay for the entire film, enabling you to compare the final product to the conceptual frames. It's probably a more sensible way to experience the storyboards than the screen-filling, full movie with final soundtrack approach taken on Studio Ghibli's cruder, less colorful storyboards.

Finally, we get Watership Down's long original American theatrical trailer (3:43).

In keeping with Criterion's traditions, Watership Down boasts a simple Blu-ray top menu.

The main menu loops some clips with music and effects.
As always, Criterion authors the Blu-ray to resume playback of anything and also to allow you to set bookmarks at any point during playback of the film.

The full-color disc is held in one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases, where it is joined by an illustrated booklet that folds out to 12 pages. Half of those pages are devoted to "Take Me with You, Stream, on Your Dark Journey", a new essay by comics writer and historian Gerard Jones. It celebrates the film for its unconventionality and its ability to honestly translate the original ideas of Adams' text and lends insight into its creation, including the uncredited contributions of Mr. Magoo creator John Hubley. The remaining pages provide cast, crew, and disc credits and transfer information.

Danger lurks all around rabbits in "Watership Down."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Watership Down may most impress those who dismiss animation as children's fare. Its dark, dramatic, allegorical presentation is clearly something quite different from the norm. As someone who appreciates the art form as it is more commonly employed, I didn't find much to love about this bleak, bloody film, whose story and characterizations felt lacking on the whole.

Admirers of the film will certainly appreciate Criterion's Blu-ray edition, which treats it to its best picture and sound to date and adds a number of substantial bonus features to boot.

Buy Watership Down at Amazon.com: Criterion Blu-ray / Criterion DVD / Instant Video

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Fantastic Mr. Fox Bambi When the Wind Blows The Last Unicorn The Fox and the Hound The Black Cauldron Grave of the Fireflies
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Reviewed February 24, 2015.



Text copyright 2015 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1978 Nepenthe Productions Limited, Cinema International Corporation, AVCO Embassy Pictures and 2015 Janus Films and The Criterion Collection, Universal Studios. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.