Written by: Aaron B.
-Thanks to this Watership Down Fan Site for help with location names and spelling of characters. Spoilers ahead. –
After I read the novel “Watership Down” in high school, I kept imaging some other take on the story. The original film made in the 70’s happens to be my favorite animated movie of all time due to its uniqueness and style. I’ve watched it a few times and I still think it’s my favorite so far. I heard Netflix was doing an adaptation with the BCC way back in 2015, and I waited and waited for this.
Reading every article, watching the casting news and every little thing including trailers, I had been talking about this ‘dream epic’ adaptation of one of my favorite books for so long, and I really couldn’t believe when it was announced.
I watched one episode a night, so I’ll break down each one.
Episode 1- The big night. Sitting down to watch this was like a dream come true, from the opening with the tale of El-ahrairah. Then we saw Sandleford and just seeing how neat the rabbits looked and hearing them say the names Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig was so amazing, I really liked the designs for the most part, the environments looked detailed and neat. I know a big controversy with this series is ‘the animation isn’t good’ and ‘it looks like a PS2 game.’ In the first episode, I didn’t notice it all too much here, but I’ll touch on it soon.
The events were close to the book, and I was happy- I especially enjoyed the cliffhanger ending with Captain Holly and we see a glimpse of General Woundwort before the credits rolled. Something I did pay attention to the end credit music. I wasn’t sure if they’d use an epic instrumental or maybe some other version of ‘Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel. Instead we get an original song by Sam Smith entitled “Fire On Fire”.
This is I suppose the theme for WSD 2018 and I love it. It’s not as beautiful as Bright Eyes and Art has a much better vocal range, rather it’s more of an epic song that fits in with something like “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings” which perfectly fits the tone of what they’re doing. I suppose as I always said ‘Watership Down is Lord of The Rings starring bunnies.’ So, I love the new theme and after the first episode, I got goosebumps. Really because seeing a new adaption of one of my favorite epic tales was something I thought would never happen. Honestly? This so far was almost exactly like I pictured it. Not a story about bloody rabbits, but a journey with magic and dark themes. A journey that is about hope and adventure.
Episode 2- I was curious on how they would do Kehaar the seagull, one of my only faults with the 1970’s WSD is how he was handled. I liked him fine in the book, but it seemed like they made him way to annoying. I’m happy to say that while he’s not my favorite, I did enjoy him much more here. I really didn’t think I’d like the farm section as much, with breaking out the rabbits, but that ended up being super intense. I loved when they broke into the house at night as well, I don’t remember if that was in the book or not, but it was nice. I liked the darker tone of this episode as well, they seem to get slightly more disturbing every episode.
Episode 3- The second to last episode I knew had to be quite bold, since I knew what it was leading up to and I knew episode 4 was going to be pretty much drawn out battle between the two warrens and the way they built this up was very good! Bigwig being a spy and seeing his plotline was super engaging, I feel that this episode was the darkest out of the four. There’s a lot of somber moments and I feel like General Woundwort really showed a lot of evil here. I give super big props to the voice actor Ben Kingsley who really conveyed his twisted ideas and gave an intimidating performance, I feel like he stole every scene he was in. The highlight of this episode for me was right before the ending, when Bigwig is asked to kill one of the female rabbits and that haunting song plays as the rain pours.
None of the plot choices bothered me, they had section focusing on the female characters and I liked it, especially Hyzenthlay and how hopeless she was under Woundwort’s reign. Really good storytelling.
Bigwig ended up being my second favorite character in the story because of this episode, Hazel is number 1 since I feel like he has a lot of qualities I aspire to, but I won’t get to into that. I also liked the scar on Hazel’s leg after he got shot, it was ugly and looked much better than the hand drawn wound in the original. I guess that’s an unfair comparison, but it’s how I felt at the time.
The only negative I found in this episode was at one point in the opening as one of the female rabbits is searching for Hazel, some of the camera movements looked odd to me. I mean, it is a TV show, so I do also understand that the budget doesn’t allow for perfect cinematography. I also think they handled the cliffhanger well, I wasn’t sure where they’d leave it and I think they did the best possible option.
Episode 4- I was sad to watch this today, I really wanted it all to keep going, but I guess I’d rather have something rather short then dragged out. The opening of Woundwort’s childhood was interesting and something that wasn’t in the book. Did it do its job of making me feel for the villain? I don’t know honestly, I feel like he did so much evil and was so egomaniacal that it’s hard for me to see him as anything more than scum, but it was interesting to see this, it confused me at first, but then it quickly goes forward to the present.
The best visual in this episode was by far Kehaar swooping through the air, they had a slow-motion shot of him flying, with the rain falling and the lightening flashing. Such a good visual, reminded me of something out of “Legend of the Guardians”, the movie that came out in 2010. The bulk of this episode rested on the battle between the warrens. My goodness, they did such a good job with this, not shying away from bloody scars and death-they really made it like something out of a war movie.
The death of Captain Holly was something I didn’t think would happen, I don’t know if it happened in any version of the story, it was effective for sure. While I said episode 3 was the darkest, episode 4 is the most violent as it should be for a war. The intensity of rabbits breaking into the warren and the screams for help was both depressing and gripping, even though I knew the outcome. One thing I will say was the epic score was amazing here by Federico Jusid, it reminded me of a classic epic tale with the choir booming as the dog chasses down Hazel and goes to the warren to kill Woundwort. Just so good and it’s how I pictured it in my head as I read the book.
One thing I DID like about Woundwort was he wasn’t a coward when the dog came, yes, he’s evil-but a tough bastard. I like that in a bad guy, he fights his own battles and fought Bigwig of course. I was curious on how they’d end it, would it be similar to the source or would they do something different? I kind of hoped it would be similar, and it was. I loved how after the battle we had lush landscapes and baby rabbits playing, showing the future of the warren. The little bits of comedy were fine, I never laughed much during the show which really doesn’t matter. You don’t laugh during something like “Lord of the Rings”, so it wasn’t something I was looking for of course.
The lines I loved the most were when Fivver approached Hazel as he was about to nap in the grass and said something along the lines of ‘goodnight brother, it’s been quite a journey.’ Like he knew Hazel was going to die but didn’t want to admit it fully and wanted a fond fair well, that did get me a tiny bit choked up since I didn’t expect it. The last visual of a rabbit shaped cloud as the sun set was beautiful and how you could faintly hear Bluebell telling the tale of Hazel to the children was a very nice touch, in fact I think the lines he was saying were from the book directly. Did Bluebell write Watership Down? Hm. That would be an interesting conspiracy theory. Lol.
Overall- I loved this. Was is perfect though? Did it meet every expectation? I’m going to say out of 100%? 90% yes. Overall it was exactly what I wanted. As a true fan though, I can’t help but see tiny little things I would have improved on. Of course, some of this maybe they did the best they could, as it was a TV show and not a multimillion-dollar Hollywood movie. Some of it was script related though as well.
The camera work was a bit odd at points and looked a bit artificial, to much like a video game at some points. Some of the fight scenes looked like they could have been polished a bit in the first episode, BUT where the fighting counted, it was great in the finale, so I won’t take points off for that.
I admit, it would have been amazing to see this on a Hollywood budget, while the animation was good-I feel like with a Hollywood budget it would have been amazing. Something like a DreamWorks movie? Again though, for a TV show I was really impressed with how it looked, and I think the TV show format told a more engaging story than a two-hour movie could have, so I much prefer the TV format for this story and I’m glad it ended up this way in the end. Sacrifice a tiny bit of ‘good graphics’ to tell a more gripping and faithful adaption of the novel, I’ll take it. I really want to own this on Blu-Ray, incase steaming services end and I can’t re-watch it.
Maybe at some point, I’ll get my hands on at least a DVD. Maybe from Britain? This must be my favorite series of 2018, something I waited so long for ended up happening and it really was fantastic and if you have Netflix, watch it. Even if you think ‘rabbits aren’t my thing’, there’s so much to enjoy here. If you love the book, what are you waiting for? To me, this is one of the best book adaptations ever to come out as far as TV is concerned. The animated film is still my favorite animated movie ever, this lacks the imagination of the original but to me, this is a much more powerful and emotional telling of the novel. Both are excellent and very different. Which do I prefer? I have to say, with much surprise-the 2018 version. Yes, the 70’s one is super unique and it’ll remain a movie I won’t forget, but this series as I stated, perfectly represents the tone and the spirit of an epic adventure and to me.