Friday, January 11, 2019

Watership Down (2018)

By Cat

Series Name/Year: Watership Down (2018)
Tagline: None
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure
Length: 1 Season (Mini-Series), 4 Episodes, Runtime range of 51 min. per episode
Rating: TV-PG
Production Companies: Netflix 42, Biscuit Filmworks, ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Producers: Catherine T. Elliott, Allison Charles, Georgia Dussaud, Ben Irving, Cecil Kramer, Noam Murro, Gary R. Naccarato, Martin Rosen, Bhanushali Shilpa, Deepali Bhanushali, Rory Aitken, Ted Biaselli, Tom Bidwell, Ricardo Curtis, Cathal Gaffney, Wes Lui, Lokesh Mishra, Shakti Prakash Mohanty, Eleanor Moran, Darragh O'Connell, Ben Pugh, Matthew Read, Hugo Sands, Rebecca Swift, Larry Tanz, MarĂ­a Ulled, Josh Varney, Erik Vignau
Directors: Noam Murro, Peter Dodd, Seamus Malone, Alan Short
Writers: Tom Bidwell, Richard Adams
Actors: James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Gemma Arterton, Anne-Marie Duff, Sir Ben Kingsley, Peter Capaldi, Tom Wilkinson, Olivia Colman, Mackenzie Crook, Taron Egerton, Freddie Fox, James Faulkner, Lee Ingleby, Miles Jupp, Daniel Kaluuya, Rory Kinnear, Craig Parkinson, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Rigby, Jason Watkins, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lorraine Bruce, Gemma Chan, Lizzie Clarke, Henry Goodman, Peter Guiness

IMDb Blurb: Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, the adventure tale follows a band of rabbits on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, toward a promised land and a more perfect society.

I have long been a fan of Watership Down. I watched the cartoon movie when I was roughly middle-school age (and many times since then); and also read the book. I own the author’s companion book which includes a compendium of stories in epilogue of the rabbits at the Down. I’ve even seen a few episodes of the British-Canadian TV series adaptation. That one never aired in the US, to my knowledge. I digress. 

Needless to say, I was excited when I’d learned that Netflix was going to be releasing a mini-series adaptation of this beloved story.  My excitement was slightly tempered with anxiety. How would it turn out? Would they be true to the heart of the story and honor the original production? 

I have my answers. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in results, but overall my experience was positive. I had a chance to watch with my family while my daughter was on her Christmas break from school. We’re both big fans of the adorable long-eared critters. We’ve watched the original together, so she was already familiar with the story as well.

Let’s focus on the positive first.

This adaptation was fairly close to the source material. The pacing was similar but just slightly off of the original. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – it’s just what one can expect in a 4 episode series as opposed to a single cinematic production. While I missed the presence of Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes” in this series, I’m glad they didn’t try to stuff it in somewhere. It was something special that should belong to the 1978 original alone. (I’m going to ignore the fact they covered the song in the 1999 series that didn’t air in the US.) The key thing is that I don’t believe they left out anything important.

Another point in this adaptation’s favor was the cast. While I can’t honestly compare James McAvoy (Arthur Christmas, Filth, Split) to the late, great John Hurt (The Skeleton Key, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Doctor Who); he did an excellent job with the role of Hazel. He has such a quiet command in his voice that leant well to the role. It was a little harder to distinguish that Nicholas Hoult (Underdogs, Equals, Collide) voiced Hazel’s brother, Fiver. He represented the character well – and Fiver’s one of the most complicated of the whole lot. Surprisingly, I believe I like Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Runner, Orphan) as Clover the hutch-rabbit a lot more than the original actress for the role.

As an interesting note of trivia, there’s a little 6-degrees-of-separation of cinema connections going on within the cast as well. Hoult and McAvoy starred in some of the more recent X-Men: First Class (2011) cast ensemble movies. Also, Peter Capaldi (The Musketeers, Doctor Who, Christopher Robin) gave a smashing performance as the seagull Kehaar in this adaptation. He’s just coming out of his stint as the ‘12th Doctor’ on the BBC classic sci-fi show – which connects him to the original movie voice of Hazel, John Hurt. Hurt, of course, plays ‘The War Doctor’ in a season prior to Capaldi’s stint in the role.

It’s easy to get lost down that rabbit hole! Let’s surface for some silflay and consume a couple more items of note that the adaptation got right. OK, I know, I sound loony; but there is method to my madness. I really enjoyed that they didn’t try to muck about with the lapine language that the rabbits were speaking. There’s quite a few words that sound outright alien to anyone who hasn’t encountered this story before. You can likely find definitions somewhere online – or you could just consult the novel. Richard Adams made sure to include a glossary of the terms he used in his story. Generally, these terms are fairly easy to understand within the context of each scene.

A point of note that I found interesting was that this adaptation tones down the violence presented on screen just a smidge, in comparison with the original movie. Let’s be honest. If anyone has watched the original as a child, it’s nearly always a traumatizing experience.  These bunnies fight and there is a LOT of blood. The world is full of dangers to rabbits, and the story doesn’t gloss over any of them. In this version, however, there isn’t nearly as much blood. The violence wasn’t omitted, however – you just don’t see oozing blood and spittle the way you did in the first. This version might be slightly more palatable to a younger audience – but please understand that the themes here overall are dark, full of dread, and generally as equally inappropriate for small children as the original movie is.

The only thing that I am on the fence about with this mini-series is the animation. I don’t mind some of it, but it just felt… odd. It was clearly CGI. I’m not sure what part about it didn’t sit right. I can’t tell for sure if it’s just my bias in favor of the original that is tugging on me, or if there’s really an issue. Considering I’ve seen the animation mentioned as a negative point in quite a few reviews, either we’re ALL biased, or it’s not just me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not horrible, and it wasn’t enough to take me out of the story – so at least there’s that.

All told, this adaptation is highly enjoyable. It’s also got built-in intermission between episodes! I’m glad that Netflix decided to green light this project, as it introduces a whole new generation to this adventure epic. It will always be that, in my opinion, even if the story is about bunnies. Bunnies need homes too!

Rotten Tomatoes Critic Score – 81%

Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score – 82%
Metascore – 76/100
Metacritic User Score – 5.3/10
IMDB Score – 7.2/10

Trust the Dice: Cat’s Rating – 4/5

Movie Trailer:

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