‘Watership Down’ Review: A Great Story Ensnared by Arthritic Animation

Watership Down is one of the greatest stories of the last 50 years, if not all time. Originally written by Richard Adams back in 1972, the award-winning novel was adapted into a fantastic animated feature in 1978 and a more recent animated series at the turn of the millennium. Adams’ story about anthropomorphic rabbits attempting to survive the harsh realities of the natural world and the humans who are encroaching on their territory has also been adapted into other media over the years. The latest attempt is a computer-generated miniseries from BBC and Netflix, available to stream in its four-episode entirety starting December 23rd.

If you’re unfamiliar with Watership Down in any form, don’t be fooled by the cute and cuddly rabbits frolicking through fields and gardens in search of vegetables to snack on. This story goes beyond childhood trauma fiction like Old Yeller and The Velveteen Rabbit and is more in line with Adams’ other harrowing tales like Shardik and The Plague Dogs. And if it’s more contemporary stories you might be familiar with, Watership Down is at least a spiritual inspiration behind the Holocaust metaphor Maus and the super-violent anthropomorphic animal comic/card game franchise, Squarriors. It’s a fantastic tale that uses animal characters as stand-ins to explore the human condition, which is at times ruthless, aggressive, manipulative, and fearful, while still leaving room for hope, love, and kindness. But as great as the story of Watership Down is, its telling in this particular adaptation is hampered by animation that looks and feels at least 10 years out of date.

Image via Netflix

Let’s get this out of the way early on because it really is the only misstep in all of this new Watership Down adaptation, but it’s a big one. The animation is just unacceptably bad. I had hopes that it would either get better throughout the story or that I’d get acclimated to it, but no dice. The rabbits themselves, whether hopping, walking, or running, look like they suffer from severe arthritis; there are simply not enough ways to hide this fact (i.e. high grass or deep shadows) when your story centers on rabbits running from one thing to the next. This “jankiness” (a technical term, of course) is especially noticeable in battle scenes between characters, scenes that are supposed to be powerfully emotional but are reduced to laughable moments. The story would have been better served by using the animation style seen in the intro (a sort of shadow puppet show explaining the lore of the rabbits’ mythology) throughout the telling of the tale.

The good news is that most of the characters themselves are wonderfully designed. When you have multiple warrens of rabbits running around, it’s easy for them to all blend together into a mass of indistinguishable furry faces, but these designs are unique and enjoyable. The standouts here are Bigwig, with his bigger frame and mohawk-like hair; Fiver, with his diminutive size and skittish behavior; and of course Woundwort, with his imposing mass and visage. It’s just a shame that all the artistry that went into designing these beloved characters falls apart as soon as they start moving.

Image via Netflix

Up to the task of bringing the heroes and villains of the miniseries to life is the incredible cast, featuring James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, Ben Kingsley, John Boyega, Daniel KaluuyaOlivia Colman and Gemma Arterton, along with Rosamund Pike, Peter Capaldi, Taron Egerton, Gemma Chan, Miles Jupp, Freddie Fox, Mackenzie Crook, Anne-Marie Duff, Rory Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson, Jason Watkins, Craig Parkinson, Henry Goodman, Lee Ingleby, Charlotte Spencer and Daniel Rigby who all voice fan-favorite characters in the new series. That’s a crazy cast, right? And they all do a phenomenal job of breathing originality and personality into their CG counterparts. McAvoy and Hoult are wonderfully paired as Hazel and Fiver, while Boyega walks away as my favorite of the bunch for his portrayal of Bigwig, with Kingsley’s ever-growling Woundwort a close second.

Noam Murro‘s direction shines at times, as in the paired escape/chase sequences that take place in different locations but are beautifully edited together to maintain tension, or in Fiver’s prophetic, dreamlike hallucinations. Other times, his direction struggles to overcome the limitations of the animation itself. Thankfully, the original story doesn’t suffer much in this latest adaptation. Tom Bidwell‘s script does take some liberties, like changing the core cast of characters, likely due to practical limitations of animating so many characters on screen, and opting for fewer on-screen deaths than the original. (This amazing write-up breaks down said deaths in both adaptations, by number, by manner of reaping, and more; it’s morbid and I love it.) So while this adaptation of Watership Down is less gruesome and not as damaging to kids’ psyches, there’s still death and violence and scary scenes throughout; it’s not a kids show, remember. The upside of this mature treatment of the source story is that the emotions are earnest, the relationships are heartfelt, and the loves, lives, and losses along the way are meaningful. It’s just a shame the atrocious animation detracts from the whole experience.

Image via Netflix

If you’ve never seen Watership Down, this isn’t an awful place to start your experience but it is a rough go, visually. The story changes also alter a lot of minor moments in the book and previous film (i.e., which characters die and how that happens, some of the mythological elements of the tale, etc.) while keeping most of the major beats intact. One of the more positive changes is that it explores the daily life within Woundwort’s makeshift warren a lot more, though the other side of this coin is that it overstretches the source material a bit; three hour-long episodes would have sufficed. (And as a minor closing thought, the movie’s music and theme song are actually quite good, as well.)

Luckily, the story is so good that it shines above the shoddy animation, but the 1978 adaptation is still a better bet and the original story itself is still the best. Give this one a watch only if you can stomach the visuals and the visceral material.

Rating: ★★★ Good