Director – Noam Murro, Co-Directors – Seamus Malone & Alan Short, Teleplay – Tom Bidwell, Based on the Novel by Richard Adams, Producers – Georgia Dussaud & Cecil Kramer, Music – Federico Jusid, Visual Effects Supervisor – Philip Child, CG Animation – Prana Animation Studios, Inc. (Supervisor – Nilesh Sardesai, Animation Supervisor – Shobit Trivedi), Production Design – Joel Collins. Production Company – 42/Biscuit Entertainment/Eleos Productions Limited/Brown Bag Films.
James McAvoy (Hazel), Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), John Boyega (Bigwig), Ben Kingsley (General Woundwort), Peter Capaldi (Kehaar), Gemma Arterton (Clover), Freddie Fox (Captain Holly), Olivia Colman (Strawberry), Anne-Marie Duff (Hyzenthlay), Tom Wilkinson (The Threarah), Mackenzie Crook (Hawkbit), Taron Egerton (El-Ahrairah), Lee Ingleby (Captain Campion), Daniel Kaluuya (Bluebell), Miles Jupp (Blackberry), Rory Kinnear (Cowslip), Craig Parkinson (Sergeant Sainfoin), Daniel Rigby (Dandelion), Jason Watkins (Captain Orchis), Rosamund Pike (Black Rabbit)
In a rabbit warren in Sandleford, Fiver tells his brother Hazel that he has had a vision of the destruction of the burrow and the death of them all. The warren’s leader The Threarah is dismissive when they go to speak to him and so Hazel decides the only option is for them to gather those willing to come on a quest to set up a new burrow. Only a handful of them decide to make the journey and set out, pursued by The Threarah’s owsla. Behind them the warren is destroyed by earth moving equipment during redevelopment of the area. Out in the open countryside, the rabbits face new threats. They are invited to join a burrow but find those there are slaughtered by a farmer. The group have no does to form their warren and so Hazel conducts a peril-laden venture into a farm to rescue does from a hutch. At the same time, they meet rabbits from the nearby warren of Efrafa and are invited to visit because they have plentiful does, only to discover that the warren is a cruel dictatorship led by General Woundwort.
Watership Down (1972) was first novel from Richard Adams (1920-2016). At the time, Adams a British civil servant and the story started as a series of tales that Adams made up to tell his two daughters. (Watership Down is an existing area in Hampshire in the south of England, near where Adams grew up). Adams’ daughters insisted he write the stories down and the book was born. Initially rejected by several publishers, it then became a best-seller and won several awards upon publication and has since become widely regarded as a modern classic. Adams went on to write several other books, most of which take the point-of-view of animals, and later published a follow-up collection of other stories Tales from Watership Down (1996). He became an ardent animal protectionist and served as the president of the RSPCA in 1982.
The novel underwent an animated adaptation as Watership Down (1978), which is one of the best animated films of its era, although is one whose importance has been neglected today. The film’s Martin Rosen, who also acts as a producer here, went on to make another superb Adams adaptation with The Plague Dogs (1982). Elsewhere, there was also a live-action adaptation of Adams’ ghost story The Girl in a Swing (1989).
This is a new adaptation of the Adams book for the BBC shown in four one-hour episodes on tv or two episodes of about 100 minutes each on Netflix. The mini-series is directed by Israeli-born Noam Murro, a commercials director who previously made the films Smart People (2008) and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014).
The first thing you notice about this version of Watership Down is that its CGI animation looks around the level of a film made in the early-to-mid-2000s. More than anything this is due to one being spoiled by the high-end animation produced by Pixar, Blue Sky, DreamWorks, Illumination et al these days or the photorealistic talking animals of The Jungle Book (2016). It does take some way into the mini-series to adjust to what is otherwise perfectly acceptable animation, just at a quality where not every leaf, blade of grass and hair is detailed. Other reviewers were dismissive of the show on these grounds. The other minus is that much of the show takes place in a dun grey that has removed colour variations from the frame, while there end up being so many rabbits on screen with minimal distinction between them that it becomes to be difficult to tell some of the characters apart.
That said, once you settle in and become used to the animation, you realise that you are watching a very faithful adaptation of Richard Adams’ book. With a 204 minute running time (over twice the length of the 1978 film), the mini-series has much more ease and time to tell the story. Thus the characters, the background of the rabbit culture and aspects of the story (although both filmed versions adhere closely to the original) are afforded more time in the telling. You are soon absorbed in the strength of the story. Noam Murro builds many of the latter scenes with considerable drama, especially the tense and exciting siege that comes in the final episode.
As with the book, there is a dark undertow to everything that you rarely find in other family friendly entertainment. The threat of death is ever-present – be it corpses of other rabbits lying on the side of the road as the party cross, the lurking threat of predators, the images of doom facing the warren and the threat of slaughter that hangs over the first burrow they visit. The appearances of the Black Rabbit at the end of Episode 2 and especially in the final scene is one that never fails to cause you to tear up. The production team have pulled back slightly on the darkness of the imagery that I remember being in the 1978 film. Added is much more of a sense of pessimism than the 1978 film ever had where the other rabbits are frequently given cause to doubt Fiver’s visions and turn against Hazel’s leadership.