In adapting Richard Adams’s Watership Down, the classic tale of a rabbit uprising in the English countryside, first-time director Martin Rosen made a rather controversial decision from the beginning to excise the invented mythology shared between Adams’s symbolic lagomorphs. Rosen chose to condense the folklore of Adams’s world into a prelude that lays out the mythological origins of rabbits, and how the Sun God both cursed them with predators and blessed them with special powers of speed and evasion. This portion of the film is animated through an almost primal expressionism, reminiscent of indigenous Aboriginal paintings among other styles, which gives way to a more classical animation style when the story turns to a brave rabbit named Hazel, voiced by John Hurt. The segue between visual palettes not only conveys a passage of time, but also suggests the evolution of basic beasts to thinking beings.
Watership Down’s trajectory similarly follows a gradual awakening of consciousness and rebellion in Hazel and the rabbits that choose to follow him. At the beginning of the film, Hazel is disgruntled by the uncaring, violently stubborn rabbit elder, who refuses to heed the warning made by Fiver (Richard Briers) of a great catastrophe about to befall them and their small kingdom in Sandleford. As it turns out, that catastrophe is humans, coming to tear up the land, and though there’s a sly sense of ecological awareness in the script, Rosen is careful never to make the humans seem especially evil or mean-spirited, but rather ambivalent and possessed of limited empathy.
That being said, one of the film’s more memorable and effective sequences is the depiction of the demolition of Sandleford, which occurs after Hazel and a few of his acolytes head elsewhere to found their own colony. The bucolic landscapes against which most of the film’s action takes place gives way to acid-dipped hallucinatory images as one of Hazel’s former neighbors describes the collapse of the colony in Sandleford, bringing a rushing, oddly chilling sense of both mental and physical suffocation. Indeed, Rosen smartly refuses to be cute or evasive about death, proven by the near-death of Hazel’s comrade, Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), who almost chokes on his own blood. The writer-director never oversells this sobering view of death in these images, which gives the film a thoughtful, unassuming sense of mortality throughout.
The film grows particularly urgent when Hazel and the gang find themselves at odds with Woundwort (Harry Andrews), an ugly, fascistic rabbit elder who leads a colony not far from where Hazel and his group find a temporary settlement. If the moralism of Hazel’s fatal feud with Woundwort seems just a bit too clean-cut, Rosen still doesn’t treat Woundwort as a throwaway character. He’s a scarred rabbit, crippled by an obsession with social control and dominance, to the point that he has other rabbits maimed for the lightest of infractions. The reason that the war between Hazel and Woundwort is so thrilling and convincing is that the ideologies of both characters seems infused in their very blood rather than simply touted by didactic speeches. Every dismissive grunt Woundwort gives seems to carry a full sense of the bitterness against the world that made him so cruelly domineering. Watership Down certainly wasn’t the first animated film to think about character with such an attentive sense of nuance, nor was it the first to dismiss the preposterous notion that the form is inherently childish. Nevertheless, its role in transitioning animation from a medium meant primarily for kids to an adventurous, ambitious art form worthy of serious debate is impossible to ignore.
The LPCM 2.0 audio doesn’t offer much in the way of density in the sound, but the film’s audio isn’t particularly complex to begin with. What the LPCM does is lend clarity to the dialogue, as well as the score, sound effects, and Art Garfunkel’s lovely interlude in the back. Visually, the film probably hasn’t looked this good since it was on the big screen. The animation is hand-drawn and you can still see the minor mistakes, lovingly restored in this 1080p restoration. The grays, deep reds, light yellows, and oranges are largely dark, but they look vibrant throughout. There are no signs of major digital touch-ups, and the few shaky transitions are hardly noticeable while watching the film.
In the "Passion Project" featurette, Martin Rosen proves to be a delightful presence and a gifted storyteller. In less than 20 minutes, he gives a full sense of the work that went into the production, including the way he got the gig and worked with the animators. There’s a similar joy that arises from Guillermo del Toro when he speaks about the film’s influence on him in a video interview, explaining how the film taught him about animation as a serious art form. The "Designing a Style" featurette goes more in depth with the animators about their contributions to the project, and what their working relationship with Rosen was like. On top of these featurettes, Criterion adds storyboards, a trailer, and a gorgeous leaflet with an essay by Gerard Jones.
Martin Rosen’s eloquent, wondrous Watership Down offers a deceivingly simple yet powerful view of a war-ridden rabbit society, and Criterion adorns the film with a top-shelf A/V transfer and fascinating extras.