Watership Down Reviews
Downbeat but beautifully done animated feature based on director Martin Rosen's wonderful book about a group of precocious rabbits who flee from their warren and face many dangers to find and protect their new home. Marvelous, intense, and extremely well directed, though it should not be seen by children. John Hurt is memorable as main rabbit Hazel; stylish score by Angela Morley. One of the finest non-Disney animated films ever made. Martin Rosen also directed his novel THE PLAGUE DOGS.
Watership Down appeals to me on the basis that then novel is a personal favourite of a close and influential friend of mine who said that reading the book is enough to turn one vegetarian. Any tale with that kind of power must be seen to be believed. I can't be certain of how much of the depth is carried over into the film adaptation, but I will admit that I didn't feel the same extent of effect from the film that he did from the novel.
Produced by Nepenthe Productions, Watership Down is not a venture by one of the more major animated film companies. Being a low budget production, the animation in Watership Down is a collection of colourful hand-drawn frames which have limitations on how much visual splendour they can boast. On the plus side of things it gives the film a technique of design which presents many of the images to carry the appearance of a classic children's storybook, and it also plays with many techniques that give the illusion of cinematography and contribute to the atmosphere of the feature. Yet there are many animation frames which are rather rough and do not maintain the same lasting value of the standard set by Disney animated films at the time. Since the animation is simplistic and traditional, this means that the characters all have the same basic rabbit faces which offers only a modicum of versatility in the emotions that the characters can depict, ultimately interfering with the effect of the voice acting. The voice acting itself is a rather underdeveloped element since many of the voice actors project the same generic tone of British sophistication which is meant to make the character seem more adult and less cute and cuddly, and this is a shame when considering the extensive list of talented names lined up for the voice cast. Watership Down may carry a sense of nostalgia with its classical animated style and it creates a lot of colour and some memorable imagery out of its low budget, but there is no denying that the technique ultimately ends up being rather stiff.
Nonetheless, Watership Down's animation is enough to provide a front for its story which seems to be the most important thing to the film. The thing I do really appreciate about Watership Down is the fact that it is far from a cheesy production. Watership Down is almost like a lost Don Bluth film. The aforementioned simplicity of the animated style is one factor, but what's more notable is the dark edge of the story. Though its colourful nature and sense of spirit makes it a child-friendly film, Watership Down is not a glossy family-friendly picture. It deals with real themes and existential material in the context of a story about rabbits which makes it more accessible to children, and the dark edge of the story respects its young viewers enough not to condescend them with a watered-down story. The fact that the film had the courage to depict animated blood should be enough of a clear signifier to this all. Watership Down is a tale of camaraderie and survival in the violence of the animal kingdom, bereft of the whitewashed song and dance of the Disney productions. The material can be confronting to some viewers, but the harsh reality of the violence in the animal kingdom and all the death that comes with it can offer some powerful dramatic strength. It can be weakened slightly by the fact that the pace of the feature is very slow since it has limitations in stretching the narrative when it lacks the same insight that can be provided by a written text, but this also offers a chance for viewers to slowly consider the full effect of everything.
However, the entire production has technical flaws which go beyond the simple visual experience. The volume of the character's dialogue in comparison to the musical score can be a little too far from each other for Watership Down to maintain consistent auditory grace. Viewers have to really listen closely to pick up what the characters are saying because their voices are too often buried into the background beneath the musical score and even the intended background noise. This is such an amateur technical flaw that despite the limitations of the film's budget it is still a challenge to overlook because it creates an experience in which comprehending the words is a real difficulty. The already underdeveloped voice acting of the feature is blunted all the more by audio levels which make the experience burdened by an unbalanced sound plane. Watership Down can be a film which is hard to sit back and embrace when it requires effort on behalf of viewers to actually understand everything. Still, the music itself offers a valuable presence.
However rough the audio quality may be, I can definitely cite my enjoyment of the musical score itself. The composition work of Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson manages to evoke a really classical feeling which creates a gentle mood during the slower sequences of the film. But it lays down its full effect when the narrative gets to its much harsher moments of atmosphere. The mood is embraced with full emotional effect as the music strikes into the hearts of audiences without going over the top, maintaining an effective balance between subtlety and large scale. The music in Watership Down manages to consistently carry the atmosphere of the film, and is perhaps its most consistently strong element even if the audio editing itself is problematic.
Watership Down is a low-budget production and must be treated as such: it carries some colourful techniques which help to evoke a storybook feeling while its musical score is rich, yet the former is stiff in parts and the latter can be too loud in contrast to the silence of the underdeveloped voice acting. And while the darker themes of the story remains admirable, the lack of character development and slow pace puts the drama on a meandering path.