Color, 1978, 101m.
Directed by Martin Rosen
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Warner (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL), Universal (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Big Sky (DVD) (Australia R4 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1978, 101m.
For viewers of a certain age, few titles can evoke stronger memories of childhood trauma than Watership Down, the superb but unflinching adaptation of Richard Adams's bestselling novel about English countryside rabbits searching for a new refuge when their warren becomes uninhabitable. Taking a cue from George Orwell's Animal Farm, the story imbues its animal characters with enough recognizable characteristics to tempt readers and moviegoers to read it as an allegory for the various foibles of mankind, but it also works just fine as a harrowing adventure story on its own terms.
In the striking, stylized opening, we learn about the central rabbit folklore that they were originally prideful creatures who have been saddled with enemies of all shapes and sizes including dogs, cats, humans, and seemingly all of nature itself. Fortunately they are also blessed with speed and cunning, attributes that come in handy when young rabbit Hazel heeds his brother Fiver's ominous visions of bloody visions and impending doom. They band together some of their group to traverse the perilous landscape and encounter more rabbits along the way, some of them shell-shocked or mortally wounded survivors of man's construction tactics and others trapped in a militaristic life of subservience under the brutal General Woundwart. Soon a battle for the future of their survival erupts that will determine their future in an increasingly difficult world.
Needless to say, this British production isn't really children's fare despite the fact it's been unleashed as a cinematic babysitter for decades on unsuspecting tykes. Blood and horror are in no short supply here, most notably an abstract but terrifying account of one filled-in warren's fate and the infamous snare scene, not to mention the brutal climax complete with vicious rabbit fights and a bloodthirsty farm dog. However, it's also beautifully mounted with a wonderful handcrafted feeling including watercolor backgrounds and appealing character animation. On top of that you get some superb voice work from an all-star cast of talent including John Hurt, Ralph Richardson, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Zero Mostel, and Roy Kinnear among many others, and the soundtrack has since become a classic thanks to Angela Morley's sensitive score and the beloved theme song, "Bright Eyes," sung by Art Garfunkel and penned by pop music genius Mike Batt (which later made a hilarious cameo in Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit).
Director Martin Rosen expended a tremendous amount of time and passion getting this project off the ground despite the acclaim heaped on the 1972 source novel, with many feeling it would be unfilmable. Fortunately he persisted and turned out a film that became a significant critical and commercial success in its native country; in America it was pushed more as kid's fare and shown often at matinees, with predictably stunned reactions. Since then the film has gone to inspire a three-year U.K. TV series, with subsequent references to both the novel and film turning up everywhere from TV's Lost to Donnie Darko. Rosen went on to helm another Adams book in 1982, The Plague Dogs, which ranks up there with Grave of the Fireflies and When the Wind Blows as one of the most disturbing animated features ever made.
Not surprisingly, Watership Down has remained steadily available on home video since the early VHS days with Warner Bros. handling it in the U.S. after Avco Embassy's theatrical release. European DVDs and Blu-rays beat their American counterparts onto shelves, though Warner did mount a solid 2008 special edition (replacing their nearly bare-bones 2002 disc) complete with a Rosen interview alongside editor Terry Rawlings, a 12-minute video piece ("Defining a Style") with the film's animators about its mixed-media techniques and character depictions, and a storyboard/film comparison for four scenes. Blu-rays released soon after in Europe contained only the theatrical trailer, while some overseas variants including Australia contained a Rosen commentary track with Chris Gore that seems to be contractually unavailable elsewhere.
In 2015, Criterion revisited the film for what should be considered its definitive release for a very long time. The HD transfer from the original negative looks terrific and is finally liberated from the damage and aged look that marred the DVDs, and the LPCM two-channel stereo track sounds great as well. The vintage featurette with the animators and the British theatrical trailer are carried over here, while Rosen appears for a newly-filmed interview about the film in which he articulately covers its genesis and execution during one of animation's most famously bumpy periods. The impassioned "Movie Miracle" clocks in at 13 minutes with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro covering the film's role in his passage from childhood and praising its artistic construction, flaws and all, as well as its potential meanings for viewers in its views on bravery and mortality. The previous storyboard extra is updated here with the option to see storyboards for the entire film, a nice touch as well as a nifty alternate way to appraise its artistic achievements. Finally the insert leaflet (as opposed to booklet) features an essay about the film's importance in the history of feature animation by comic writer Gerard Jones.