World of Bile

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Watership Down (1978)

Hi Mark et al,

Sorry it'd been so long in coming. Here's my latest post, cribbed from my writings on By the way, in case you're interested, my Jade Goody opinion is ranked #1 on the topic of the month listings.. pretty good, huh?

Hope your Easter was a pleasure and the chocolate consumption wasnt too great. I'm off to have a nibble now, as it goes..

Watership Down (1978)
93 minutes
Dir: Matin Rosen
Voices: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox, Ralph Richardson

The book of this provided one of my fondest memories of school. Fourth year English with Mr Doyle: he introduced us to Shakespeare which I REALLY couldn’t get my head around. However, Watership Down was another matter: a story about rabbits escaping from their warren, suffering hardship on their travels and finally arriving in their new home. Kind of a Moses theme: vision inspired, charismatic leader leads his acolytes through trials and tribulations in the wilderness. But: we’re talking rabbits here(!!??) They have their own personalities, society and belief system and Richard Adams portrays them with a human touch. I’m not talking ‘The Incredible Journey’ or ‘Bambi’ here: we get adversity, death and the noble struggle for your fellow rabbit – a perfect mix of bittersweet sentiment that fired up my teenage mind. I devoured the novel from cover to cover in about two weeks and savoured every word.

The book garnered countless awards when published 1972 after been rejected on 13 separate occasions previously. Its’ appeal has continued; thirty years on it was voted the 42nd greatest film of all time in the BBCs Big Read poll, an indicator the esteem in which it continues to be held.

Of course, the animated film released in 1978 has added to the appeal. To fit everything into an hour and a half running time the novel's story is abridged, however the elements remain faithful to its’ sophisticated themes. The action opens with the heroes of the story: a pair of brother rabbits named Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) and Fiver (Richard Briers). The latter often has troubling visions and during one particularly claret sunset sees a flood of blood overwhelming the burrow. He convinces Hazel to take him to see the Chief Rabbit (Sir Ralph Richardson) to discuss plans for fleeing from this perceived threat. The Chief turns them down, so they flee – barely eluding the Owsla – the warren’s militia, taking two of their number with them (Bigwig and Silver). Fiver’s vision promises a new place to settle – somewhere high and with a view of the surrounding countryside, and this turns out to be Watership Down: a hill he spies from afar. However, once they arrive it seems like a hollow victory. Hazel and his troop have no does amongst their number. No does, means no kits which means the new burrow will die out…

So the search begins for females to join the group. Hazel leads an unsuccessful effort to free some captured white rabbits from the local Nuthanger farm – being nearly mauled by a cat and shot by a farmer in the process. The group also hears about a local warren called Efrafa, which disgruntled rabbits wish to leave, and one of their number joins the Owsla there to bring them away. This leads to the gruesome finale: the Efrafans, under their vicious leader named General Woundwort (voiced by the wonderfully gruff and menacing Harry Andrews) the escape is discovered. Only with the help of a seagull that Hazel befriended, do Bigwig and the escapees manage to elude their Efrafan pursuers. However, Woundwort and his Owsla reach the Watership Down warren, our heroes barricade themselves in – the General has a horrific showdown with Bigwig and Hazel comes up with a solution when all seems lost…I’m not going to give away the ending, check it out…

What I Think:

Lets face it. The animation isn’t the greatest at times. The colours are muted and the rabbits do not overly detailed. The quality is similar to the animated series ‘Animals of Farthing Wood’.. a little too similar fact. I challenge you to watch the latter and then watch the former soon after, after the sweet twee-ness of the children’s series, witnessing one cartoon rabbit ripping the throat off another is a shock. Bigwig’s near asphyxiation on a snare while his friends stand around near powerless to help is another moment which sticks in the mind. I make no bones of it: this film has some very nasty moments that will traumatise the little ones who might watch. The dimension of society and folklore is a wonderful addition which is faithfully transposed from the book. The rabbits have a creator (named Frith), a mythological trickster hero (El-ahrairah) and a canon of legends they quote from time to time. The first scene of the movie is one of these; a story of the First Time how the ‘rabbit race’ came to its precarious position in nature – an exquisitely, almost aborginal influenced scene directed by John Hubley. The ephemoral Black Rabbit of Inle (the bunny Grim Reaper – voiced by the wonderfully melifluous Joss Ackland) also makes an appearance as a hazy lupine shade with glowing eyes. More Frank the Rabbit out of Donnie Darko (~) than kiddy cartoon fayre. Fiver’s visions have an equally unsettling quality about them: something striking which stay in the mind long after viewing. The handful of scenes mentioned here alone make you realise you are watching something a little beyond the ordinary.
The vocal talent on show is something special. A plethora of classically trained actors illustrate that this film is certainly one for the grownups. John Hurt is a star of classical productions, and weighty, intelligent movies and he is just approaching his career high point here (two Oscar nominations to come). His Hazel has a voice of quiet, calm dignity that only John Hurt can suffuse into a role. Richard Briers provides Fiver’s edgy, dreamy little voice which also suits well. Overall the vocal roles are not overplayed, the bunnies are voiced by seasoned stage actors who do not ham it up. We have no high pitched squeaky little rabbits or villainous critters voiced by the likes of wannabee heavies like Craig Fairbrass (#). The exemption is Kehaar, the abrasive seagull rescued by Hazel who helps the warren during their time of need. Here we find the comic relief: a seabird who only speaks pidgin (ahem) English voiced by Zero Mostel, a guy who was like a 1940s Rodney Dangerfield – a pleasing interlude amongst all the Shakespearing luvvies, I’ll have you know…
The soundtrack is of equal pedigree. The first pieces were written by Malcolm Williamson, Master of The Queens Music from 1975 to 2003. The story goes that he became unavailable after writing two movements of the score a fortnight before the completion date. Angela Morley came in and completed the remainder of original material in ten days! Of course the highlight is the Art Garfunkel sung ‘Bright Eyes’ will have you bawling for the tissues every single time. As a tear-jerker it is hard to beat - makes ‘Candle in The Wind’ sounded cliched and insipid by comparison.

In short. This film is a bit special, despite looking like a bland children's cartoon. The adults will be intrigued by the full and involving life the rabbits lead, against the lovingly painted backdrops depicting the Berkshire countryside. It broke the mould for animated film and has been emulated many times since, but never remotely equalled in its’ genre. In 1999 a cartoon series of the same name appeared, colourful and even more cartoonlike but uninspiring in comparison - here's a snippet.

... Sounds like it’s voiced by a cast of children’s television presenters, I reckon..

Watership Down is available from all good retailers. Amazon currently sells it for about £4, or alternatively you can watch the whole movie on youtube.

(#) Former Eastender: normally renowned for clichéd hoodlum roles.


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