Skip to main content

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down
(1978)

(SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate.



As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much informed by an Old Testament view of God, such that Frith treats his rabbit subjects (and particularly El-ahrairah) with impunity, rather than mercy. They are, as C3P0 might say, made to suffer. The novel’s main narrative is broken intermittently with stories concerning the attempts by El-ahrairah to outwit Frith, or punishment by his god, or his encounters with the Black Rabbit of Inle (in the film, Hazel offers himself to Black Rabbit to protect his own, as El-ahrairah does in the novel; in both instances, Frith turns him down).



It’s striking how fully developed Adams’ world is, in a manner not so dissimilar to George Lucas’ pre-fabricated Star Wars universe. Both preoccupy themselves with the Campbellian hero’s journey, after all. Adams arranges his stage with prophets (Fiver, voiced by Richard Briers), no-nonsense heroes (Bigwig, voiced by Michael Graham Cox) and sidekicks/comic relief (Kehaar, voiced by Zero Mostel, who manages to be the amusing centre of the movie while also occupying what is ostensibly the Han Solo role, right down to swooping to the rescue at a crucial moment).



Underpinning and permeating these archetypes is an absolutely integral belief system. Rather than the Force, it is Frith and the Black Rabbit that are a simple fact of existence; the picture is bookended by Frith’s individualisation of El-ahriarah as a rabbit, and an older Hazel shuffling off his mortal coil in the company of the Black Rabbit; so too, at the midpoint, there comes the inclusion of Art Garfunkle’s memorably crooned Bright Eyes (more famous than the film itself), as Fiver is led to his brother Hazel through a vision quest. 


Uncartoonified design, fitting the pigeonhole-less book, Watership Down, despite being directed by an American, fits into a highly individualised tradition of British animation (until the industry essentially became Aardman). The anthropomorphism is subtle, such that you’re barely aware (barring Keehar) of mouth movements as the (outstanding) voice cast deliver their dialogue. 


The results are simple yet poetic and elegiac, visualised through pastoral pastel backgrounds and naturalistic behaviour and movements from the landscape’s animal inhabitants. Filmmakers often say they’re attempting to honour source material while the end product reveals nothing of the sort, so betraying their essential cynicism, but Rosen genuinely means it and genuinely delivers. Areas that would no doubt have been discarded under a Hollywood umbrella, such as the distinctive rabbit language, are retained without, rightly, feeling the need to explain; audiences can readily understand.


Adams’ book is replete with sex and death. The former is less prevalent in the picture, albeit remains the motivating force for all the problems encountered during the second half of the picture. Of note is that Adams’ presents the matriarchal rabbit kingdom as patriarchal, with does objectified as producers young, which has earned it understandable criticism from some quarters. The novel also features liberal helpings of coprophagia. As Rosen notes, no one was sure initially if this was a children’s or adult book, and the film follows that guiding principal, often regarded as much too distressing for young children by parents yet contrastingly loved dearly by those who appreciate a different, distinctive, intelligent tale, one that refuses to talk down to or coddle its audience.


And it isn’t as if the makers attempted to hoodwink cinemagoers; the poster depicts Bigwig caught in a snare in! Blood is everywhere in the film, both literal and metaphorical, and there is no shying away from animal casualties; this is animation poised between the comfort of anthropomorphism and the reality of a natural history programme (as a reminder of its heartland feel, we even hear “This is the BBC Home Service” on the radio at one point).


There is also much hallucinatory imagery, from Fiver’s vision of blood encroaching across a field (very much adopting the tone of a horror movie, sinisterly corrupting the countryside Just as the machines will in due course) to Holly recounting the terrifying destruction of the warren, expressionistic rabbits suffocating in blocked holes, grasping for air. One wonders if the film didn’t impact on Vincent Ward when he was making Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, what with the interpretation of the great metal beast that is a train as a messenger from Frith.


Sound is also used in an uncompromising way, very much following the horror genre. Angela Morley turned five minutes of Malcolm Williamson cues into a full score in only two weeks, and takes in themes from the idyllic to the martial, almost imperially so, of the Efrafan in their pursuit of the Hazel’s rabbits. The climax is notable in that (like the novel) it utilises what would become the fake-out of a thousand slasher movies or Thomas Harris novels; just when you thought it was safe, General Woundwort returns.


There is compression here, but little of it leaves one complaining how much better the the film would have been if only it stuck to the source material. Changes include having Holly come across the Efrafans during his escape from the doomed warren (rather than as part of an expedition sent by Hazel to find mates), but this doesn’t really hurt the structure; while it would be quire possible to make a two-and-a-half-hour Watership Down (apparently the ‘90s TV series loosely followed, and sanitised, the novel), and make it riveting to watch, that just isn’t the way with animations, which, conscious of viewer ages and resources, generally stick to the 90-minute mark. Perhaps Fiver is rather forgotten in the end (he doesn’t get his moment at the climax, unlike the novel) but he does cue up events with the warning “There’s a dog loose in the wood”.


Some find the animation style crude, judged by today’s standards, and it was even called out in relation to the cost-cutting approach of Disney at that time (Time Out was scathing, writing it off as a glorified radio play and lacking any of the novel’s punch), yet I find it difficult to countenance such criticism with what is so persuasively charming and distinctive.


Also distinctive is one of the best voice casts ever assembled for an animation, headed up by Hurt’s unusually heroic role as Hazel, Briers perfectly encapsulating Fiver’s woozy vulnerability, and Pipkin even looking a little like Roy Kinnear. Ralph Richardson’s Chief Rabbit is almost a boorish civil servant, oblivious to the danger he is in, while Denholm Elliot’s Cowslip, resident of the snared warren, is a fantastically louche, flaky, creepy rabbit poet (“Where are you going, stream…”), sitting idly by and ignoring suffering on his doorstep (so a rabbit very much humanised by human intent). 


Indeed, one most regrets the reduction in representation of characters from the novel when one scans the supporting cast; names such as Hannah Gordon (Hyzenthlay), Nigel Hawthorne (Campion) and Derek Griffiths (Vervain). Michael Hordern and Joss Ackland are marvellous as Frith and the Back Rabbit respectively, the former instilling a hauntingly wistful authority, while Harry Andrews is a suitably imperious Woundwort (“Dogs aren’t dangerous!”)


And, of course, there’s seagull Keehar’s “plenty good fella”, wonderfully brought to life by Zero Mostel in his last film role. He’s the comic relief, granted the best hero moment and also the biggest laugh (and shock), exclaiming “Piss off!” to the rabbits when he first meets them (this is in the novel, but it’s still an eyebrow-raiser in a U certificate family film). While there’s little similarity between the plots of Watership Down and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, both Robert C O'Brien's novel and Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH, the latter released four years after Watership Down, also include a feathered slapstick sidekick in the form of dim-watt crow Jeremy (voiced by Dom DeLuise).


Watership Down went down extremely well in the UK, but was a failure in the US. Perhaps its uncompromising approach was a bit of a sucker punch in a country so used to Disney niceties. Still, it did well enough that Rosen followed it up with an adaptation of Adams’ The Plague Dogs (also with Hurt and Hawthorne). The in-the-making BBC CGI adaptation of Watership is inevitable, I guess, although I will be extremely surprised if it remains as true to the novel as Rosen (conversely, it would be nice to see faithful remakes of the likes of Mrs Frisby, The Iron Giant and The Fantastic Mr Fox one day). Watership Down’s greatest strength is that it carries the air of undoctored truth, neither patronising nor appeasing its audience; nature is cruel, harsh, resplendent and beguiling in this melancholic classic. It’s one of the best British animations ever made.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…