Watership Down

Watership Down (1978)
Warner Home Video
Extras: Trailer, Text Supplements

Based on Richard Adams’s bestselling novel, ’Watership Down’ stands as one of the finest animated features ever made and the constant attempts to market the film as kiddie fare does a great disservice to both the movie and the impressionable tots who will likely be quite shocked by this decidedly dark look at the dueling forces of society and nature.

Tired of the regimented world of the warren and jarred by the dire warnings of the seer-like Fiver (Richard Briers), Hazel (John Hurt) leads a group of rabbits in an attempt to escape and forge a new life for themselves in the English countryside. The benefits of this daring venture seem to outweigh the risks and the rabbits are soon building a new home and beginning their search for mates. But this hunt leads them into direct conflict with neighboring warrens — as well as other animals and humans — and soon the rabbits are fighting for their very survival.

’Watership Down’ tells a very basic story of hope and survival but the use of rabbits to convey the message is what makes this tale so unique. Richard Adams’s massive book is a wildly unique story and director Martin Rosen’s very condensed cinematic version manages to retain the core elements that made the book so moving.

As just about any review of this film will point out, these are not your average cutesy cartoon rabbits. ’Watership Down’ is filled with all manner of good and evil characters and the horrors the film shows are made even more striking and emotional by the use of such seemingly gentle creatures to tell a often dark tale.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is pretty good although the rough nature of much of the animation doesn’t make for the sharpest presentation. The overall image is a bit soft and colors are a tad muted. In addition, brightness fluctuates a bit and the image is a little jittery at times. There are also some very minor physical blemishes on the print but this is really about as fine as one would expect this film to look.

Audio is presented in English and French Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround mixes. The soundtrack is very good with decent dynamic range and no noticeable hissing or popping. Surrounds are used mainly for the musical score. ’Watership Down’ is fondly remembered by many fans for its moving score by Angela Morley and the hit song ’Bright Eyes’ written by Mike Batt and sung by Art Garfunkel and this audio mix offers up a very nice musical presentation.

Extras include a few very brief text supplements as well as the film’s theatrical trailer.

As a lifelong fan of animation it continues to amaze me that the moviegoing public is so set against any animated films that don’t easily fall into a very limited number of pre-defined, kid-oriented genres. ’Watership Down’ quickly gained a cult following upon its release but the vast majority of folks had no idea what to make of these allegorical bunnies. It’s a shame that the most inventive and expressive of the filmmaking techniques is hamstrung by this inability to view animation as serious art.

’Watership Down’ is an incredible film and Warner’s new DVD release offers up decent enough audio and visual quality. Now if we can just get the even more overlooked ’The Plague Dogs’ (another Richard Adams and Martin Rosen collaboration) released on DVD then fans of intelligent animation will really have something to celebrate.