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Martin Rosen
John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, John Bennett, Ralph Richardson
Martin Rosen, based on the novel by Richard Adams

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you.

Rated PG.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85
English LPCM Stereo
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 92 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 2/24/2015

• “Passion Project“ Featurette
• “A Movie Miracle” Featurette
• “Defining a Style” Featurette
• Storyboards
• Trailer
• Booklet


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


Watership Down: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1978)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 11, 2015)

Every once in a while I risk the ruination of childhood memories and rewatch favorite flicks from my younger days. Actually, I do that reasonably frequently, but some movies remain exempt from the potential curse. I mean, I’ve seen Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws many times since my youth. My opinions are well set, so it seems unlikely another screening will change them.

Other films aren’t quite so safe. In the past I’ve examined old faves like The Towering Inferno and Jaws 2 with varying results. Some of these hold up pretty well, while others seem much crummier than I recalled.

While I don’t know if I’d call 1978’s Watership Down an actual favorite from my youth, it is a) a flick I enjoyed a lot when I was a kid, and b) a movie I’ve not seen since that time. I also really liked the book, so much so that at this point, I can’t distinguish one memory from the other. Do I retain fond thoughts about Down based on the text, the film, or both?

I can’t answer that, but based on my recent screening of the movie, I think the strength of the novel influenced my feelings. While the film has its moments and seems like a good piece of work overall, I must admit it doesn't bowl me over after all these years.

Watership Down examines the lives of some rabbits who break off from their warren when one of them - an apparently psychic bunny named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers) - foretells doom. Only Hazel (John Hurt) really believes Fiver, but he recruits some others to accompany them on the search for a new home.

From there, the movie follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to start anew. The group struggles to find a location for their next home, and when they do succeed in that regard, they need to attract some females so their male-heavy crew can prosper in the long run.

Their biggest challenge comes from a rather fascistic local warren headed by General Woundwort (Harry Andrews). They seek domination and don’t take well to the intrusion offered by the newcomers. A full-fledged battle eventually ensues, aided by the presence of Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), a former top officer from their original warren.

While I enjoyed Watership Down, I must admit the film seemed a little thin and flat at times. I don’t remember the book tremendously well, but I recalled enough of it to recognize the moderate weakness of the characters.

Perhaps I flashed back to the fuller roles found in the text, but I thought the various rabbits didn’t come across as terribly well developed personalities. Even significant participants like Hazel and Bigwig appeared sketchy. On one hand, it feels a little silly to criticize the lack of depth found in bunnies, but since Down really functions as a social commentary in the Animal Farm mold, it seems important that the characters appear more substantial than they are.

Overall, Down did well with its allegorical elements, though again, they didn’t come across as terribly well developed. The original novel offered a long text, and it was difficult to pack all that into a 90-minute movie. As such, at times Down seemed more like a Cliff’s Notes version of the tale. I also could have lived without the flick’s occasionally heavy-handed ecological message.

Nonetheless, the film did offer something unusual and distinctive. The animation appeared somewhat stiff and unnatural, but the artwork itself was quite good. Backgrounds looked like watercolor paintings and seemed lush and vivid. The production lost some points for the inconsistent and awkward animated depiction of the characters, but I still liked the film’s unique look.

Also note that Down provided a fairly graphic tale. It really earned its “PG”; in fact, had it not been a cartoon, it clearly would have merited an “R”. The film offered a lot of bloody violence that could seem gruesome at times. One definitely should be cautious about the young audience allowed to see the flick; while the bunnies may appear enticing, they aren’t the cute and cuddly sort.

Overall, I’d recommend Watership Down because it offered something unusual that also seemed reasonably well done. However, I have to acknowledge I felt moderately disappointed with the film. While a competent piece of work, it didn’t display the depth that I remembered, and it seemed a bit thin at times. In the end, it was a good movie but not anything terrific.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus C+

Watership Down appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This became an appealing presentation.

Sharpness seemed crisp and distinct, as I discerned no problems related to softness or fuzziness at any time. The image remained clear and well defined throughout the movie. Jagged edges and moiré effects also presented no problems, and I saw no indications of edge enhancement. With natural grain, I didn’t sense any overuse of digital noise reduction.

As one might expect, Down offered a very earthy palette, and the disc displayed those tones well. Really, other than Kehaar’s beak, the only vivid hue seen during the film came from blood, which ran a deep red. Otherwise, the movie showed subdued but clear and accurate greens and browns. Black levels appeared dark and dense, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy without too much opacity.

Down displayed some source flaws, though that criticism came with a caveat. I got the impression that most of the concerns stemmed from the original photography, as the dust and marks seemed to be inherent to the film and not related to a bad print. These weren’t heavy, but they could distract. Overall, however, this was a very good presentation worthy of a “B+”, as even the mild messiness from the original animation couldn’t do much to mar this appealing image.

Also fine was the LPCM 2.0 soundtrack of Watership Down, where the forward channels displayed nice stereo material much of the time. Music spread clearly across the channels, and effects - most of which remained in the realm of general woodsy ambience - also blended together neatly and realistically.

A fair amount of speech also emanated from the side channels, and this occurred in a natural manner. Sometimes dialogue from the right or left comes across as too speaker-specific, but these words popped up from less obvious realms, so they worked better than usual.

Audio quality seemed reasonably good for the age of the material. Dialogue occasionally appeared somewhat thin, but for the most part, speech came across as acceptably natural and warm. I noticed no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility.

Effects lacked substantial punch, but they seemed clear and accurate as a whole, and they lacked substantial distortion. Music came across best. The score featured modest but clean bass and showed bright and fairly vivid highs. This seemed like a quality effort for the era.

How does the Blu-ray compare to the Deluxe Edition DVD from 2008? Audio showed a bit more pep, while the image looked tighter and more distinctive. Although the DVD worked fine, the Blu-ray became a clear improvement.

The Blu-ray mixes old and new extras, and we open with Passion Project. In this 16-minute, 21-second piece, writer/director Martin Rosen discusses the source novel and its adaptation, other aspects of bringing the story to the screen, art design and animation, cast and performances, music, and the film’s release.

Despite its brevity, “Passion” covers Watership Down pretty well. Rosen covers a good mix of subjects and does so in a compelling manner. While it’s too bad he didn’t record a commentary, the featurette does well for itself.

Another new piece, A Movie Miracle fills 12 minutes, 33 seconds with thoughts from filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. He chats about aspects of its story/themes as well as animation topics and his appreciation for the film. Del Toro’s discussion complements Rosen’s and gives us some nice insights.

From the 2008 DVD, we locate the 12-minute, 34-second Defining a Style featurette. It includes notes from Toonhound.com president Frazer Diamond, animators Alan Simpson and Colin White, background artists Denis Ryan and Gary Sycamore, and actor Joss Ackland. The piece looks at the movie’s visual design and animation. We learn a fair amount about the production here, so it becomes another good program.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get storyboards. When activated, these run alongside the film and let us compare the boards to the final animation. That acts as a good way to view the storyboards, so this turns into a satisfying addition.

Finally, a 12-page booklet comes as part of the package. It features an essay from comic book writer as well as some credits and art. While not one of Criterion’s best booklets, it provides some value to the set.

While not the classic I remembered from childhood, Watership Down remains a reasonably compelling film. It suffers from the problems that almost automatically occur when one translates a long text into a short movie, and the animation seems fairly weak. However, the flick offers something unique and worthwhile and achieves many of its goals. The Blu-ray delivers positive picture and audio along with a small but informative set of supplements. I feel pleased with this quality release.

To rate this film, visit the Widescreen Edition review of WATERSHIP DOWN

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