October 7, 2008

Watership Down (Deluxe Edition): The Bunnies Are Back!


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of 5): ****

The publication of Richard Adams' Watership Down in 1972 created a literary furor. An immediate and enormous best-seller in Britain and the U.S. (and, I imagine, everywhere else it was published), the novel was one of those rare publishing anomalies that captures the imagination of just about everybody: a 429-page children's book suited equally, if not better, to adults, with glossary, map (complete with references) and peppered throughout with quotes from everyone from Shakespeare to Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy and the Duke of Wellington. The story is full of the things that we look for in good, gripping novels -- excitement, adventure, suspense, love, death, joy, sacrifice and commitment, with the capper of being highly intelligent and beautifully written. The heroes? A group of rabbits that must relocate its warren.

At the close of my initial reading, the book left me in a profound state (not to mention a puddle of tears), feeling I had experienced something quite special. Upon learning that the film adaptation was to be animated, I was saddened. How could this do justice to the book? Movie technology of the time (1978) had not reached the heights of Babe, with that film’s lifelike talking animals, so we had to settle for what we could get. What we got, in Martin Rosen's Watership Down, was a remarkably able, though telescoped tale (those 429 pages were now 92 minutes), made with class, talent and respect for Adams' accomplishment.

Smartly, the movie begins with the religious myths of the rabbits, which of course mirrors our own, but with more pantheistic leanings. The stylized and charming animation leads us into the "characters" of the anthropomorphized rabbits using a deeper, more sophisticated and meaningful method than that of Disney's and other children's films. It's this beginning -- together with the finale, which beautifully connects to the opening creation myth -- that allows the film to serve its dual purpose: giving children proper hints about the complexity of the world they are entering while offering adults a vision of life's continuity that we so deeply crave.

With British master voices such as those of John Hurt, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, Michael Hordern and Joss Ackland (plus a hammy Zero Mostel as the clownish seagull Kehaar) and a nice song sung sweetly by Art Garfunkel, there's talent here aplenty. If this is nowhere near the novel, it's about as good a truncated movie version as anyone could hope for. And the new DVD transfer is a good one; it looks sharper than in the previous edition. Special features include a conversation with the filmmakers and a section showing the collaboration between artists, animators and actor (Joss Ackland) in the creation of a character. Subtitles are available in English and French but, oddly and sadly, not in Spanish. Hello, Warner Bros: Which language is spoken by America's most numerous immigrants?

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Posted by cphillips at October 7, 2008 1:42 PM
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