Not simply a cartoon about bunnies, Watership Down is not a film for children. An adaption of Richard Adams’ massive, complex novel, director Martin Rosen has fused concrete scripting, a wonderful original score, and unforgettable characters with excellent voice casting to create a mesmerizing and unflinching look at animals and their behavior—violence and all.
All though there are some changes made throughout, for all intents and purposes, Rosen produced an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel. The story centers on a group of rabbits who leave their warren after one of them, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), has a premonition that their home is to be destroyed. While the rabbits don’t know where to go, they trust that Fiver will get them there because he’s seen it in his dreams.
Fiver’s brother Hazel (John Hurt) becomes the leader as the group wanders the countryside, dodging the threats posed by dogs, cats, badgers, and farmers. At one point, they seek shelter in a sparsely populated burrow whose well-fed population seems content to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the dark reality of their circumstance. Eventually, the rabbits happen upon a brutally totalitarian burrow led by General Woundwort (Harry Andrews) which eventually results in a ferociously violent face-off.
Watership Down is one of the few animated features that doesn’t shy away from showing the brutality of the world it depicts. The film can be seen as a political metaphor, with the different warrens representing different forms of government (which ones they are is up to the interpretation of the viewer). Released in 1978, the film features, a surprising amount of explicit violence, with the kind of bloodletting you might expect from a horror film. In the films most talked about moment, the “Bright Eyes” sequence, Hazel, on the verge of death, hallucinates that the Black Rabbit (the Grim Reaper, if you will) is coming for him. As shocking as some of those images can be, it’s the realistic nature of Watership Down that makes the story so captivating.
While the animation isn’t on par with the Disney’s work at the same time, it must be said that the art and animation team have achieved a sense of realism that is truly admirable. The main characters were given easily identifiable characteristics, while the earthy browns and greens help to maintain a real sense of environment. The voice cast, led by Richard Briers and John Hurt, acquit themselves admirably, adding the inflections necessary to portray their characters convincingly.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Watership Down is a noticeable improvement over the Warner Bros. DVD. Colors are brilliant throughout, accompanied by rich blacks. The image is free of distortion and noise, retaining a filmic appearance. Some specks of dust are apparent, but that appears to be more a result of the animation process than the actual transfer.
The included 2.0 stereo PCM track delivers a fairly immersive experience. The entire soundfield is used rather well, with clear music and dialogue. Range is quite good, and volume levels are reasonable. There is a slight hiss from time to time that disappears for long periods.
English subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Passion Project: Martin Rosen on Watership Down (HD, 17 min) Newly recorded for Criterion in 2014, director, writer, and producer Martin Rosen discusses the financial difficulties of filming Watership Down, as well as his relationships with the group of animators involved with the project.
- A Movie Miracle: Guillermo del Toro on Watership Down (HD, 13 min) Newly recorded for Criterion in 2014, director Guillermo del Toro explains why Watership Down is an important film, and its influence on his career. He also discusses some of the film’s political themes.
- Defining a Style (HD, 13 min.) Produced in 2005, several of the movie’s artists and animators discuss the film and their roles in making it.
- Animated Storyboards: They play over the entire film in the right top corner of the frame. Each frame corresponds to a scene in the film.
- Trailer (HD, 4 min.) Original trailer for Watership Down.
- Leaflet: Illustrated leaflet featuring Gerard Jones’ essay “Take Me with You, Stream, on Your Dark Journey.”