Release Date(s)1978 (February 24, 2015)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #748)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A-
When it comes to animated films that many feel are unsuitable for children, several come to mind, such as films made by the great Ralph Bakshi. But when you want to talk about something that’s disturbing, scarring, or even soul-stirring, you can’t get much closer than the 1978 animated version of Watership Down. Based upon the bestselling novel of the same name by Richard Adams, it’s a film that, while successful in its native land of the U.K., left a generation of kids with some very vivid memories that informed their outlooks on life as adults.
The lasting impact of Watership Down doesn’t simply lie within its visuals or its characters, but also within the many themes and ideals that it brings to the surface. Among them are takes on religion, political subversion, dictatorship, and the human condition. All of these points of interest are woven into a simple storyline about a brace of rabbits who must leave their home in fear of a looming threat, brought on by feelings of dread and intuition. They travel far from their home, seeking out a new place to settle into, but along the way face many of life’s cruel challenges. There’s nothing that approaches fluffy or cuddly about this film other than the presence of anthropomorphic rabbits. The theatrical poster alone, which is an image of one of the rabbits caught in a snare trap, gives you information about the film’s content, and to let you know that you’re not going to be in for some wholesome family fun.
The opening moments of the film, which give a very stylized account of the mythology and culture of the animal kingdom, has a completely different approach to that of the rest of the film. It borders on bright and cheerful, but once you’re sucked into it, you quickly realize that it’s only setting the stage for a dark story to unfold. And while the rest of the film’s animation isn’t overtly amazing, it’s impressive nonetheless. Complementing all of it is a wonderful score, with the added benefit of Art Garfunkel’s rendition of “Bright Eyes”, a song that (at least in context) can bring even the most cynical viewer to tears.
Watership Down was a box office success in the U.K., but mostly came and went in the U.S. without much of an impact at the time. The story was later turned into a much softer and more audience-friendly TV series in the U.K., but other than the original novel, the truest version of the story is in its cinematic form. It’s that rare kind of animated film that doesn’t come along too often, affecting all ages of people who see it in an almost primordial way. As such, it’s considered by many to be one of the finest pieces of animated storytelling ever committed to film.
Criterion’s presentation of Watership Down is sourced from a new high-definition digital restoration, and the results are quite pleasing. The film’s visual design and execution could never hold a candle to the overall quality of a Disney film, I suppose. But even so, there’s a very strong, organic presentation on display here. All of the inherent flaws of the animation and color palette have been left intact, with a strong grain field. Detail is immense, and both shadow detail and contrast levels are equally satisfying. There are also no signs of digital enhancement to be found. It’s a perfect presentation of an imperfect-looking film, which is all you can really ask for. The film’s single audio track, English 2.0 LPCM, is of the same caliber. While the dialogue is always clean and clear, the sound effects and score have a dated feel to them technically, but never do they stand out as unusual. The score has plenty of room to breathe, enveloping the listener in some of the film’s key sequences. It isn’t a dynamic powerhouse of a soundtrack by any means, but it’s perfectly appropriate and satisfying. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
As for the supplemental features, there’s a nice little assortment to dig through, including two new interviews (Passion Project: Martin Rosen on Watership Down and A Movie Miracle: Guillermo del Toro on Watership Down); the Defining a Style featurette about the making of the film, including interviews with some of the film’s key animators; picture-in-picture storyboards for the entire film; the film’s original theatrical trailer; and a fold-out paper insert with an essay on the film by comic book writer Gerard Jones. There are also a few extras missing from previous releases of the film on DVD. From the Warner Bros. original snap case DVD release, there was a Bunny Talk Glossary and a Watership Down Today featurette; from the Warner Bros. Deluxe Edition release, there was a Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers featurette; and from a Region 4 DVD release, there were various still galleries and an audio commentary with director Martin Rosen, which was moderated by Chris Gore from filmthreat.com. So it’s a package that’s incomplete as far as the extras go, but still a nice good variety of material.
All in all, Criterion’s release of Watership Down is bit of a revelation, and will certainly be so for a great number of people who might not have heard of the film otherwise. It’s a powerful piece of work that deserves its due, now with a satisfactory presentation and some excellent supplemental material. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons