Watership Down (film)

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Watership Down
A sunset depicting Bigwig in a snare, with the title in fancy font and the credits below.
U.S. theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Rosen
John Hubley (uncredited)
Produced byMartin Rosen
Screenplay byMartin Rosen
Based onWatership Down
by Richard Adams
Starring
Narrated byMichael Hordern
Music byAngela Morley
Malcolm Williamson
Edited byTerry Rawlings
Production
company
Distributed byCinema International Corporation
Release date
  • 19 October 1978 (1978-10-19) (United Kingdom)
Running time
91 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom[1]
LanguageEnglish
Budget$4.8 million[2]
Box office$3.7 million (US)[3]

Watership Down is a 1978 British animated adventure-drama film, written, produced and directed by Martin Rosen and based on the novel of the same name by Richard Adams. It was financed by a consortium of British financial institutions and was distributed by Cinema International Corporation in the United Kingdom. Released on 19 October 1978, the film was an immediate success and it became the sixth most popular film of 1979 at the UK box office.[4]

It features the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne and Roy Kinnear, among others, and was the last film work of Zero Mostel, as the voice of Kehaar the gull. The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson. Art Garfunkel's hit song "Bright Eyes", which was written by songwriter Mike Batt, briefly features.

Plot[edit]

In Lapine language mythology, the world was created by the god Frith. All animals were grass eaters, living harmoniously. The rabbits multiplied, and their appetite led to a food shortage. Frith ordered the rabbit prince, El-Ahrairah, to control his people, but was scoffed at. In retaliation, Frith gave special gifts to every animal, making some into predators to control the rabbits. Satisfied that El-Ahrairah has learned his lesson, Frith gives rabbits the gifts of speed and cunning.

In the present, in a warren near Sandleford, a rabbit seer named Fiver has an apocalyptic vision and takes his older brother Hazel to beg the chief to evacuate. The chief dismisses them, and orders Captain Holly, the head of the warren's Owsla police force, to stop those trying to leave. Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig, Blackberry, Pipkin, Dandelion, Silver, and Violet manage to escape, passing a sign (meaningless to them) confirming that a residential development is coming.

They journey through the woods, avoiding several dangerous situations until Violet – the group's only doe – is killed by a hawk. The others eventually meet Cowslip, who invites them to his warren, where a farmer leaves Cowslip's group ample vegetables. They are grateful, but Fiver leaves when he senses something unsettling in the atmosphere. Bigwig follows, berating Fiver for causing tension, when a snare catches BigWig. Bigwig's friends manage to free him, and Fiver learns that the farmer is protecting and feeding Cowslip's warren so that he can snare rabbits for his own meals. The group returns to its journey.

The rabbits discover Nuthanger Farm, which contains a hutch of domesticated does. Before they can free the females, the farm cat and dog chase them away. Later, they are found by Captain Holly, who recounts the destruction of Sandleford by humans and vicious rabbits called the "Efrafans". Fiver finally finds the hill he envisioned, Watership Down, where the group settles in with Hazel as their chief.

They befriend an injured black-headed gull, Kehaar, who flies out in search of does. The rabbits return to Nuthanger in a failed attempt to free the does, ending with Hazel being shot. Fiver follows a vision of the mythical Black Rabbit to his injured brother. Kehaar returns and, while pecking out buckshot from Hazel's leg, reports of the many does at the large Efrafa warren. Captain Holly describes it as a dangerous totalitarian state, but Hazel feels they must go there. Bigwig infiltrates the warren and is made an Owsla officer by the cruel chief, General Woundwort. Bigwig recruits several potential escapees to his cause, including Blackavar and Hyzenthlay. With Kehaar's help, the escapees find a boat to float down the river. That night, Kehaar leaves for his homeland with the gratitude of the warren.

Efrafan trackers eventually find Watership Down. Woundwort rejects Hazel's offer of peace and demands that all deserters must be turned over or Watership Down will be wiped out. While the Watership rabbits barricade their warren, Fiver slips into a trance, in which he envisions a dog loose in the woods. His mumblings inspire Hazel to try and retrieve the Nuthanger dog and lead it to the Efrafans. Hazel unties the dog while Blackberry, Dandelion and Hyzenthlay bait it into following them. Meanwhile, the Efrafans break through the warren's defences. Woundwort easily slays Blackavar, then battles with Bigwig. When the dog arrives and attacks the Efrafan soldiers, Woundwort fearlessly confronts the dog. No trace of Woundwort is ever found.

Several years later, an elderly Hazel is visited by the Black Rabbit, who invites him to join his own Owsla, assuring him of Watership Down's perpetual safety. Reassured, Hazel accepts and dies peacefully. His spirit follows the Black Rabbit through the woodland and trees towards the Sun, which metamorphoses into Frith, and the afterlife, as Frith's advice to El-Ahrairah is heard once more.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Production of the film began in 1975 and was originally to be directed by John Hubley, who left after disagreements with the film's producer Martin Rosen. His work can still be found in the film, most notably in the "fable" scene. He was replaced by Rosen, his directorial debut.

After the genesis story, which was rendered in a narrated simple cartoon fashion, the animation style changes to a detailed, naturalistic one. There are concessions to render the animals anthropomorphic only to suggest that they have human voices and minds, some facial expressions for emotion, and paw gestures. The animation backgrounds are watercolors. Only one of the predators, the farm cat Tab, is given a few lines, the rest remaining mute.

The backgrounds and locations, especially Efrafa and the nearby railway, are based on the diagrams and maps in Richard Adams's original novel. Most of the locations in the movie either exist or were based on real spots in Hampshire and surrounding areas.

Although the film is fairly faithful to the novel, several changes were made to the storyline, mainly to decrease overly detailed complexity and improve the pace and flow of the plot. In addition, the order in which some events occur is re-arranged. Unlike many animated features, the film faithfully emulated the dark and violent sophistication of the book. As a result, many reviewers took to warning parents that children might find the content disturbing. When the film was first submitted to the British Board of Film Classification, the BBFC passed the film with a 'U' certificate (suitable for all ages, similar to the MPAA's "G" rating), deciding that "whilst the film may move children emotionally during the film's duration, it could not seriously trouble them once the spell of the story is broken and a 'U' certificate was therefore quite appropriate".[5] In 2012, the BBFC admitted that it had "received complaints about the suitability of Watership Down at U almost every year since its classification".[6] In the U.S. the film was rated PG due to the violent scenes.

This attitude was extended when the animated Watership Down TV series was marketed with the producers making an effort to reassure parents that the violence had been softened and that the main characters would not be permanently harmed in their adventures. Although the third season took a slightly darker tone to try and attract more of an audience, the season only aired in North America, Germany, and Greece.

Some marketers in the U.S. also worried that the main promotional poster appeared too dark and might scare some children. The poster is actually showing Bigwig in a snare (his distinctive fur is clearly visible), yet the image on the poster does not appear in the film, which contains a far bloodier depiction of the scene.

Music[edit]

The musical score was by Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson, Morley replacing Williamson after the composer had fallen behind and only composed the prelude and main title theme in sketch form.[7] A list of the musical cues for the film can be found on the composer's website, which also gives information about the different composers working on the project.[8]

The soundtrack includes Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", which was written by the British singer and songwriter Mike Batt. He also wrote other songs for the film which were not used. The composer recorded three songs with vocals by Garfunkel, but only "Bright Eyes" made it to the film. The song "When You're Losing Your Way in the Rain" has a very similar feeling and arrangement, and was recorded by the former Zombies vocalist Colin Blunstone in 1979. Garfunkel's version was heard years later, on the TV series soundtrack released in 2000. The song, like many others which appeared on the TV soundtrack, was never used in the show.

Reception[edit]

The film was an immediate success at the UK box office and has received a mostly positive critical reception, with an 82% 'Fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews. The critical consensus reads: "Aimed at adults perhaps more than children, this is a respectful, beautifully animated adaptation of Richard Adams' beloved book."[9]

The film was nominated for Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1979.[10] In 2004, the magazine Total Film named Watership Down the 47th greatest British film of all time and it was also ranked 15th in the "100 Greatest Tearjerkers".[citation needed]

Investors in the film reportedly received a return of 5,000% on their investment.[11]

Media[edit]

Picture book[edit]

A picture book adaptation was also produced, titled The Watership Down Film Picture Book. Two editions of the book were published, one a hardcover, the other a reinforced cloth-bound edition. The contents include film stills linked with a combination of narration and extracts from the script, as well as a preface by Adams and a foreword by Rosen.[citation needed]

Home media releases[edit]

Watership Down was initially released on VHS in the UK by Guild Home Video and later by Polygram Video. It was given a DVD release in 2001 by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and another in 2005 from Warner Home Video.

In the US, Watership Down was first released on CED in 1981, and was given a VHS release in 1983 by Warner Home Video. The film was re-released a number of times on VHS in the US from Warner Home Video, and was released on DVD in the US in 2002 and again in 2008.

A UK Blu-ray for the film was planned to be released in 2010, but due to a rights dispute between Euro-London Films, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros., the release was canceled. Warner eventually put out a BD release Germany, where it held distribution rights. The UK Blu-ray was eventually released in 2013 by Universal using the same HD master as on Warner's 2008 DVD and 2011 German Blue-Ray release. In 2014, Euro-London Films acquired the remaining US rights from Warner Bros (who had held US distribution rights since the 1980s) and licensed the film to The Criterion Collection for release on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming in 2015 and under the Janus Films label for theatrical repertory runs.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Watership Down (1978)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  2. ^ FILM CLIPS: 'Rabbit Test' a Rivers Conception Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 May 1977: e9.
  3. ^ "Would You Believe an Industry Could Die?" Sunday Times [London, England] 15 June 1980: 63. The Sunday Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
  4. ^ "Watership Down". Toonhound. Retrieved 2006-12-18.
  5. ^ BBFC Examiners Report 15 February 1978 http://www.bbfc.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachments/Watership-Down-report.pdf
  6. ^ "From the Archive… viewing a "repressive rabbit regime" «  British Board of Film Classification". Archived from the original on 9 April 2012. Retrieved 29 March 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  7. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down cue sheets". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  8. ^ "Angela Morley – Watership Down music cues (page 1)". Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  9. ^ "Watership Down". Fandango Media. 1 November 1978. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  10. ^ "1979 Hugo Awards". The Hugo Awards. 2007-07-26. Retrieved 2018-12-25.
  11. ^ Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984–2000, Orion Books, 2005 p6

External links[edit]

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