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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-13.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Stereo 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 92 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 10/7/2008

• “Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers” Featurette
• “Defining a Style” Featurette
• Storyboard Comparison


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Watership Down: Deluxe Edition (1978)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 13, 2008)

Maybe you really can’t go home again. 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 I was a kid. My opinions are well set, so I don’t risk suddenly violating old affection.

However, 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’d 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 didn'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 quite stiff and unnatural, but the artwork itself appeared quite good. Backgrounds looked like watercolor paintings and seemed nicely lush and vivid. The production lost some points for the inconsistent and frequently 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 quite 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 for the most part.

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 DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus C+

Watership Down appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Some concerns appeared, but the transfer usually satisfied.

Sharpness seemed nicely crisp and distinct. 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.

As one might expect, Down offered a very earthy palette, and the DVD 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 lost some points due to 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. Still, it became tough to tell. In addition to moderate grain, I saw some specks and spots through the flick. These weren’t heavy, but they could distract. Overall, however, this was a good presentation worthy of a “B”.

Also fine was the Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack of Watership Down. The forward channels displayed very nice stereo 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.

Surround usage appeared modest but useful. I heard virtually no distinct audio from the rear speakers. They seemed to support the music and effects from the front, but they didn’t add anything unique. Still, that was fine for a movie from this era, and I thought the surrounds contributed a good sense of atmosphere.

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 fine effort for the era.

How do the picture and audio of this 2008 “Deluxe Edition” compare to those of the original DVD from 2002? I felt both discs provided virtually identical sound, but the 2008 transfer looked noticeably superior to its predecessor. It provided a cleaner presentation and lacked some digital noise found on the original. Even with its minor flaws, the 2008 disc seemed substantially more attractive.

The DE boasts a few new extras not found on the old disc. Watership Down: A Conversation with the Filmmakers goes for 17 minutes, 11 seconds and presents comments from writer/producer/director Martin Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings. They discuss the real-life visual inspirations for the film, aspects of the novel and its adaptation, choosing to make the flick as an animated work and bringing it to the screen, character design and animation, cast and performances, audio and editing, music, getting distribution for the flick, and its reception.

For the piece, Rosen and Rawlings chat together and they provide quite a few good notes about the movie. They show a nice chemistry together as they reminisce. I’m disappointed they didn’t sit for a full commentary, but their discussion offers many nice details about Down in this informative show.

Next comes the 12-minute and two-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.

Four Storyboard Comparisons fill a total of 13 minutes, 58 seconds. These cover “Opening Sequence” (3:41), “Nuthanger Farm” (4:31), “Hazel Is Injured” (2:42) and “Efrafa Chase” (3:04). When you launch this feature, you may think someone goofed, as you’ll simply see the final film footage for those scenes. However, it turns out this is a multi-angle feature; the disc forgets to tell us that, unfortunately. Use that “Angle” button and you can flip from the movie shots to the storyboards to a dual-presentation screen with both. It’s good to compare the boards with the flick’s images, but it would’ve been nice if the DVD was more obvious about how the feature works.

The DE drops the smattering of supplements on the old release. I don’t miss the minor text extras, as they were pretty useless. It’s too bad the theatrical trailer gets the boot, however.

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 DVD provides good picture and sound along with a few useful extras. Despite a few misgivings, Watership Down provides an unusually adult-oriented effort, and animation fans should give it a look.

Fans will definitely want to pursue this 2008 “Deluxe Edition” instead of the original bare-bones effort. While the DE’s extras aren’t extensive, they add some value to the set. The prime attraction of the DE comes from the significant visual improvements, as the new disc offers noticeably stronger picture quality. That makes it a worthwhile “double dip” for fans who already own the prior disc.

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

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