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vividgroovy
Sea Gull
Sea Gull

Joined: 20 Dec 2018
Gender: Male
Posts: 232
Location: Santa Maria, CA

26 Dec 2018, 6:50 am

Here's my review of something I've been waiting for a long time: a new adaptation of my favorite novel, “Watership Down.” Warning: I have a lot of opinions on this! Also, note that my opinion of the original film radically improved over the years, and that might be the case for this as well.

Richard Adams 1972 novel has two previous animated adaptations, the 1978 theatrical film and the 1999 TV series. All three versions have their good points, but none are quite right. The film had to stuff a 900+ page novel into a 90 minute runtime, focusing on the grim and violent aspects of the story. The TV series had more time to flesh out the characters and included more humor, but tailored the story to fit a more typical kids' cartoon format.

Now, we have the Netflix/BBC miniseries.

The animation may not be theatrical quality, but for TV CGI, it's quite good. The English countryside setting has plenty of atmosphere, and can be either lovely or creepy when it needs to be. The character animation is fine – it's expressive enough, and the various rabbits are mostly easy to tell apart. The most visually interesting part is the shadow puppet rendition of the “Blessing of El-Ahrairah” tale, which opens the series.

Some have criticized this version for toning down the bloody violence. I always felt the '78 film emphasized the violence so much to drive home that it wasn't a children's cartoon. In the miniseries, the predators (“elil”) and the villainous Efrafan rabbits still convey a sense of menace..

Looking at it as simply an action-adventure minseries about rabbits, it's well done enough. But this is my favorite novel. It's impossible for me to be objective about the material. There are parts of the novel I feel would work fine in a visual format, that are changed for questionable reasons. If they completely re-imagined the story, that would be fine. but the plot is similar enough that changes really stand out. On the other hand, the changes do allow longtime Watership fans a chance to wonder what will happen next.

The miniseries features a star-studded voice cast.

Short-tempered badass Bigwig (“Star Wars'” John Boyega) tends to come across the best in animation, and this version is no exception.

Bigwig's rival is the the mad, fearless dictator, General Woundwort, played by the formidable Ben Kingsley.

The clairvoyant Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) doesn't seem “out there” enough. He speaks in gentle tones, and never really gets into that state of uncontrollable panic. Another thing we never seem to get on the screen is the loving, but sometimes contentious relationship he has with his brother Hazel.

Hazel (James McAvoy) is our main hero, and he probably fares the worst. It's a shame, because McAvoy (a.k.a. Mr. Tumnus and young Charles Xaiver) seems like an ideal choice, and his performance is mostly good. The issues are in the writing. In the novel, much of Hazel's personality is revealed through interior monologue. There are moments when he speaks bravely in front of the group and then privately worries. In the Netflix version, all that worry is brought outward, so it seems like it's nearly all he does. This is something I've noticed with main characters in general lately. This dearth of confidence is supposed to make them “relatable.”

There's more humor than in the original film, but it's somewhat weak. At least it doesn't distract from the story – there are no modern references, and only one joke about bird poop.

The longer runtime allows for the story to breathe a little more than in the original film. However, a lot of that time is devoted to TV-style subplots.

One element of the novel that survives here is Adams' Lapine language, which adds to the richness of the rabbit society. The meaning of the words is conveyed through the context. Fiver and Bigwig are even sometimes called by their Lapine names, Hrairoo and Thlayli.



MINOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT



Hazel raids a farm to free some hutch rabbits. In the novel, the raid was all about Hazel being cocky and mischievous. Here, it's quite the opposite: he's terrified of making a mistake. I guess the point is that having a brush with death helps him deal with his fear.

Hazel is given a couple of love interests, and he tends to have out-of-left-field emotional outbursts about them. “You made me leave...HER!” he screams at his brother, regarding a doe who barely knew he was alive.

Later, he falls for the hutch rabbit Clover (Gemma Arterton), when he sees her through the chicken wire of the hutch. I don't even mind love-at-first-sight as a plot device, I just have to believe the couple is in love, and here, I don't.

Captain Holly (Freddie Fox) also gets a romantic subplot. Sneaking into Efrafa becomes less about saving the warren, and more about saving their two girlfriends. When the rabbits are waiting nervously outside the hostile warren, Hazel cries, “I WON'T LEAVE HER!” Nevermind that his close friend Bigwig is also in there. It's all about the doe he knew for 10 minutes. Again, this would be fine, if I were convinced that either couple was really in love.

Most of the characters in the original novel were male. Here, Strawberry (Olivia Colman) is gender-flipped to be female, and the doe Clover gets a much expanded role. The grim-reaper-like Black Rabbit of Inle (Rosamund Pike,) is also depicted as female. I was fine with the original, but I have no problem with these changes.

The new Clover is more compelling, but some of what they do with her is odd. She's been out of the hutch a mere two days when a series of horrible things happen to her. You'd think this would at least briefly sour her on the outside world, but she remains the symbol of hope.

Some of the subplots are a bit on-the-nose. Someone will say a line to another character, and later, that second character will repeat it verbatim to show they learned a lesson from it.

Others go nowhere. Woundwort has a scene with Clover in which he reveals a detail of his backstory that gives them something in common. This could have added some dimension to Woundwort's character, showing some vulnerability. Instead, he goes for the typical “villain wants to steal the hero's girlfriend” plotline, except he doesn't even know this is Hazel's girlfriend. He even says he wants her to be his “queen.” The only purpose seems to be letting the audience know that Woundwort is a creeper, but we already hate him for being a brutal dictator, so what's the point?

Bigwig gets a subplot about learning to control his temper. He has to pretend that he's a storyteller in order to sneak into Efrafa. At least has a satisfying payoff.

The rabbits' bird friend Kehaar was presented as a salty sailor type in the novel. Here, for some reason, Peter Capaldi plays him as a pricklier Scrooge McDuck. Another element from the novel that always gets dropped is Bigwig's awe of Kehaar, which turns into a friendship with the bird. It rounds out Bigwig's character. Here, he refers to Kehaar as “the most loathsome creature I've ever met,” and later, only slightly qualifies it with, “I think I'm starting to like him.”

A secondary villain named Captain Orchis is added. He's fine at being menacing, but his constant screaming about his dead brother is about as convincing as Hazel's screaming about his love-interests.

One character that comes across well is the mysterious and eccentric Cowslip (Rory Kinnear). When he was introduced by dancing oddly towards our heroes, I was thinking, “Yes, that's Cowslip!”

This is the first adaptation to include my favorite character from the novel, Bluebell (Daniel Kaluuya), however he's more of a composite character. That would be fine, but the others keep referring to him as a jokester (as he was in the novel) and he really isn't here.

The song “Bright Eyes” doesn't appear in this version. Instead, we get a lovely, defiant chorus sung by the does in Efrafa.



MAJOR SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT

Spoiler wrote:

In all the adaptations,the river crossing scene is rushed. It's always like, “We have to cross that river. What do we do? Look that floats! Let's get on that! Now we're safe!” In the book, it was much more suspenseful. This is also the only thing that Blackberry (Miles Jupp), the rabbits' resident genius, gets to do in the story.

Clover goes to rescue Hazel in “the bloody hole,” rather than Fiver, tying in to their all-important “love story.” I have no problem with Clover being there, it's just very weird that Fiver isn't. This is his brother!

The most baffling change comes near the end. In the novel, there's a conflict over who will be chief rabbit – the more brutish Bigwig and the more reasonable Hazel. During the big fight with Woundwort, Bigwig says “My chief rabbit has told me to stay and defend this run,” showing how Hazel has earned his respect. It's also a plot point, as it causes the Efrafans to imagine a larger and more terrifying chief than Bigwig. In the miniseries, Hazel TELLS Bigwig to say it. This is seemingly to make Hazel look more clever, as if it's part of his plan all along. That's nice, but in the novel, it also meant something for Bigwig's character, and here, that's gone.

Bonus points are awarded, though, for including the line “Silflay hraka, u embleer rah!” and not translating it.

There's another change that just seems pointless – it's Fiver instead of Hazel who gets caught by the cat, and gets rescued by the human girl. In the novel, Hazel had previously antagonized the cat, in his mischievous mode. Also, there was much more suspense about what happened to Hazel, whether he made it out alive, before the reveal of his unexpected human rescue.

The ending of the series features Bluebell (now the storyteller, rather than Dandelion) telling the story of Watership Down to a group of rabbit kittens. The text is actually lifted directly from the opening of the novel, (“The primroses were over...”) which is a nice touch.