Binge or Purge?: Watership Down.
Netflix and BBC re imagine Watership Down in an engaging manner, despite a few technical/animation hiccups.
Netflix finished December strong with a two big movie releases in Roma and Bird Box, and a mini-series adaptation of Richard Adam’s classic Watership Down. Studded with high caliber stars and displaying a unique CG animation style, Netflix and the BBC update the classic while remaining largely faithful to the original. Certain elements are changed to streamline the characters, and the motivations of the rabbits are given a bit of modern sensibility, allowing the female rabbits to participate in the story more equally. As a result, the series feels familiar but a bit more welcoming. And for those of us who had our childhoods scarred by the original cartoon adaptation: yes, General Woundwort is every bit as terrifying as you remember, though the gory bits are understandably toned down.
Watership Down (2018)
Hazel (James McAvoy) and Fiver (Nicolas Hoult) are two rabbit brothers living peaceably in a large warren. Fiver is the runt of the litter, and given to experiencing strange visions. When he has a vision of tragedy destroying the warren, Hazel convinces several other rabbits to escape, including the warrior rabbit Bigwig (John Boyega). They begin a journey to an idyllic location glimpsed in Fiver’s dreams: Watership Down. Along the way they contend with predators and the constant peril of human encroachment, only to discover their new neighbors on the Down are an army of extremely territorial rabbits led by the hideously scarred General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley).
The visual style of the new Watership Down has been polarizing. Some consider the CG rabbits to look uncanny, and to move in a stilted manner. There’s also the fact that many of the extra animals look low rent compared to the bunnies. The farmer’s dog is decidedly chintzy looking, like it was ripped out of the early 2000’s and pasted into this 2018 feature. While I agree that the animation is threadbare in spots, I didn’t find it distracting enough to take away from the places where Watership Down shows visual imagination. (OK, maybe the dog is a tad distracting…I mean, it’s ugly as sin!)
The episodic nature of the series gives the director some leeway to experiment with the storytelling. The series steps out of sequential time to provide backstory, development, or supplementary information. These segments are accomplished with neat visual tricks, such as getting Woundwort’s formative years in the form of a silent home movie or seeing Fiver’s visions as a nightmarish collage of symbols and abstract imagery. The first episode covers a lot of ground by using these visual flourishes, so you’ll get a sense early on of how well you think they work.
One thing that I think helps Adam’s tale of wandering rabbits endure is that it’s a heroic journey, but also a harrowing journey. Our heroes are prey animals, pretty low on the pecking order in their own community and in the wider world. Everything is rightly terrifying to a rabbit! While Hazel has a bit of Odysseus’ cunning and Bigwig has the swagger of Achilles, they’re most often running for their lives. Seeing how vague and terrifying Fiver’s visions of the world are cement the constant fear our characters live in. It resonates with children cause childhood is likewise a scary place. Children occupy the same low spot on the pecking order as Hazel and his friends, though they’re less prone to getting eaten by foxes. Seeing characters make courageous choices and survive by their wits when they’re underdogs in pretty much every way is refreshing and resonates.
Using some well-worn horror movie tropes visually keep the film from indulging in the cuteness of the protagonists. The uncanny life-like quality of the visuals is another way the film prevents Watership Down from looking like My Little Ponies. It may be a cartoon featuring talking rabbits but Adams’ material and Netflix/BBC’s presentation are at pains to communicate that this is a serious story.
Watership Down’s themes are widely taught, so I won’t belabor them. The social discussion of individual versus group, liberty versus security, and totalitarianism versus liberalism found in the book are all present, though this adaptation tends to really boil most of it down to “freedom versus tyranny” in a way that is a tad reductive. It’s a shame, since now more than ever kids could use some straight talk about these themes in terms that don’t fit on some hack politician’s bumper sticker.
A few elements are reworked to suit modern sensibilities, since quite a few have noticed that female rabbits are treated like a resource and not like individuals by the source. The doe rabbit rescued from the farm is actually given a name (Clover, voiced by Gemma Arterton) and Strawberry is gender swapped from buck to doe (and charmingly voiced by Olivia Colman, an actress having a banner 2018.) The buck rabbits also sound a bit more woke when discussing their relationship with does. It’s a small but welcome change, opening up the story for more people.
Binge or Purge?
I can safely say that Watership Down warrants a binge. It practically begs for binging, as each hour-long episode ends with a mini-climax that leaves the story more fraught by the end then when you began. One reason why I resisted doing in-depth looks at each episode as we normally do is because Watership Down is probably best enjoyed in one big marathon, or at most two sittings. The first episode is pretty self contained, while the final three are very much about the confrontation between our heroes and heroines and the militaristic rabbits of General Woundwort’s warren. The iconic elements and themes of the classic book are present, if muted in places, making it a nice entry point for children that will hopefully lead them on to read Adams’ original. Heck, they might even get enough of a taste check out his even more mature classic, Plague Dogs!