Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Watership Down

"All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a thousand enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you... But first they must catch you: digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and your people will never be destroyed."

When you have a warren full of talking rabbits with real personality and genuine character traits, you've got yourself a tale of science fiction. That's how I see it anyway.

When it comes to the best of 2D cel animation Watership Down [1978] ranks high on my list as one of the all-time best. It will always remain there and watching it again recently cements that belief. Sure, Pixar and Dreamworks have a corner on the 3D animation market. There certainly aren't many that can do 2D animation better than Walt Disney as most artists inevitably train there to begin their careers. Even the Japanese have their niche with the beautiful imagery drawn within anime, but storytelling is often a weak point for me there with exceptions, especially the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Over thirty years ago, out of left field, animation delivered an unexpected epic in Watership Down. The film is a surprisingly harsh, mature, ocassionally sweet, lovingly hand-drawn, outstanding story based on the book of the same name, Watership Down [1972], by Author Richard Adams.

The realization of Watership Down on film came thanks to Writer/ Producer/ Director Martin Rosen [The Plague Dogs -1982 also based on a book by Richard Adams] who fell in love with Richard Adams' work. Adams' book is lovingly and painstakingly brought to life in painterly fashion. Any animation shortcomings in the film, and I don't really see any myself, are more than compensated for by the wonderful script treatment of Adam's tale. I've captured a few moments from the film to share with you. I implore you to view these near poetic renderings of word and image.

Watership Down remains a personal favorite, alongside Director Isao Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies [1988] ten years later, and is one of the most powerful animated films I've ever seen. It's certainly capable of melting away the stoniest of hearts. Sure, advancements in computer animation have taken the impurities right out of cel animation, but these imperfect, warm swathes of color and picturesque landscape renderings will captivate your eyes in a way missing from today's flawless, computer rendered perfection. Today, 2D animation presentations have become just as faultless. Watership Down, armed with its beautiful rabbit drawings, is a moving picture of immense power in story and image.

Unlike unnecessarily syrupy films, animated or otherwise, this film is rarely sentimental. There is a wise heart at the core of its story on nature, culture and politics anthropomorphically delivered through a wonderful assortment of varied rabbit characters with BIG eyes conveying the emotions on film. Hazel is eloquently portrayed by the wonderful, sensible, shrewd voice of John Hurt. He paints a delightfully heroic leader who strives to bring peace, love and freedom to his reluctant followers seeking a better life. He is just one example of the fine characterizations in the film.

Based upon a book and material that once landed itself on the Best Seller list, Watership Down the film, can ultimately and equally be viewed a success. What gave this animated feature its injection of sophistication often absent in animated children's films?

First, while the film was not exclusively intended for children, the material from which the film was based was not written for children, but more as a fantasy novel. Director Martin Rosen captures the essence of the book faithfully in his adaptation. Of course, there are deviations. The film has fewer characters, less complexity and detail in locations than those found in the rather large, epic novel. Some character changes and combinations occur, the order of events are altered and specifically the character Blackavar [voiced by Space:1999's Clifton Jones] is killed in the film, but not in the book. Here is the voice of Space:1999's David Kano, played by Clifton Jones, here as Blackavar in Watership Down.

Second, as Director Rosen suggests in the on-DVD documentary, Watership Down: A Conversation With The Filmmakers, he may have infused the film with live action ideas and concepts given his own live action experience and sensibilities as a director. There is a distinctly lived-in aesthetic to this wonderful world. Rosen was far from an animation film director. He had no firm grasp on the genre and perhaps this worked as a strength as he played outside the rules or expectations of animated cinema. This fish out of water Director's tale gave birth to a truly fresh, original picture in animation storytelling on par with the substance found in Director Isao Takahata's Grave Of The Fireflies [Studio Ghibli].

Third, there was a genuine sense of realism built into the film by capturing images of location-based shooting through soft watercolors. The creative team truly captured England as it was then in the rolling hills of Sandleford. The animators animated the English landscape and the detail is astounding. Even the interiors of the rabbit warrens feel real. Watership Down is a real place and it feels as such.

Fourth, the characters become real. The animators create very real rabbits with an exaggeration of the eyes that generate sincere emotions visually, while the voice cast is exceptional. It's a tremendous feat to bring all of these elements together.

Finally, despite hardships in obtaining the funding to make the film the team persisted and even landed a spirited and telling, classical-like score, composed by Malcolm Williamson and fleshed out, arranged and conducted by Angela Morley. A stunning vocal track was also provided by Art Garfunkel in Bright Eyes [a UK number 1]. The song essentially sold Watership Down for a period. In the end, Watership Down performed well and is critically ranked as one of Britain's best films to this day.

If I had one complaint it might be the seagull bordering on Jar Jar Binks annoying, but not quite that bad. That minor quibble aside, Watership Down does not pander to any particular audience and its reach, like the book, is vast for it. It didn't pander to children although it is accessible enough. Case in point, just look at the image above of Bigwig struggling for his life in a rabbit snare.

Like Bambi's mother dying in Bambi [1942], these Watership Down images are images that remain with you, which is why the film is so fondly remembered by me to this day. Like Bambi, and this is an even darker film, it appeals to all ages. It made children uncomfortable, think and ask questions. It brought out real emotions. It's refreshing to see it now and its handling of dark issues like death, survival, loyalty and well-articulated fictional mythologies regarding rabbit lore. It strikes you differently as an adult.

Watership Down is vivid and vast in its imagination as a quest picture. The story is timeless and questions how far one would go for independence and freedom. How much would you be willing to sacrifice to obtain it? This picture begs those ageless questions through the story of its rabbit heroes who first begin the picture in a lush warren without real freedom. The silly slapstick of today's animated features is completely absent leaving it a rare contender for strong storytelling, despite being animated. I urge you to see the poetry of Adams' writing as depicted by Martin Rosen in this timeless, endearing film.

Watership Down: A

Voice cast:
Hazel [John Hurt]
Fiver [Richard Briers]
Bigwig [Michael Graham Cox]
Holly [John Bennett]
Chief Rabbit [Ralph Richardson]
Blackberry [Simon Cadell]
Silver [Terence Rigby]
Pipkin [Roy Kinnear]
Dandelion [Richard O'Callaghan]
Cowslip [Denholm Elliott]
General Woundwart [Harry Andrews]
Campion [Nigel Hawthorne]
Hyzenthlay [Hannah Gordon]
Blackavar [Clifton Jones]
Frith [Michael Hodern]
Keehar [Zero Mostel]
Black Rabbit [Joss Ackland]


Unknown said...

Wow, what a fantastic, well-written, in-depth piece on this film. I have never seen this film before but am really curious to check it out now!

I completely agree with you re: 2D animation. I just can't get into computer animation with the notable exception of Pixar. I also felt that one of the best 2D animated film in the last decade or two was THE IRON GIANT. Amazing stuff. A film that still holds up.

SFF said...

Thanks J.D.. Like yourself, I always try to have my facts. Sometimes watching the in depth features raise new ideas or thoughts about a work.

Watership Down was a one of those pictures I remember fondly. As far as 2D goes, it's a delight and filled with mature themes not often found in animation. The Iron Giant is a great example- well said. Pixar is always wonderful, flawless really. It's like comparing apples and oranges isn't it?

This would indeed be a perfect example of 2D at its finest next to some of the Disney classics.

Unknown said...

What do you think of Ralph Bakshi's stuff? I find him to be something of a mixed bag... I really did enjoy his animated take on THE LORD OF THE RINGS and FIRE & ICE is a pretty interesting film but I wasn't too crazy about COOL WORLD.

SFF said...

J.D. - I'm with you. Bakshi was an interesting animator and he kind of always seemed to be quietly working outside of the system. I certainly don't know enough abou thim to comment fairly.

I never did see Cool World. I did have the soundtrack.

Like yourself, I remember seeing Lord Of The Rings in theatres and I thought his vision of that was remarkable at the time. I was completely engaged and his combination of live action and animation blew me away back in the day.

Fire & Ice was another beauty. I really enjoyed that one as well. Thanks for the memories.