(1978) director Martin Rosen
Watership Down is one of those other films from my childhood that I could probably file under “most influential.” Not so much for the film itself, perhaps, but I did really love it, but more so because it led me to the Richard Adams novel from which it was adapted with which I developed an even more intense relationship. In retrospect, I still had a fondness for the film, but it went years and years and years and years and years…
When I introduced the kids to Watership Down, I did it in the opposite order of my experience with it. We read the novel, which I read to myself in the 4th grade. They were really engrossed in the story, as much as I could have hoped. For myself, I found reading the book again after so many years rife with memory, powerful with narrative, with strong, characters, and rich in natural details of the English countryside. While I wasn’t as personally wow’ed as I’d been as a child, I still found it very moving and worthwhile.
When we finished the novel, it was logical to watch the film.
The kids were disappointed with the way that the story was truncated to streamline the narrative (though I thought they did a pretty admirable job of it). The fact is that this is one of those quite typical cases where a movie is actually quite good but of course pales vastly in comparison to the book. The book has more time for the breadth of epic detail, more delving into the mythologies and the idea of heroism that is at the heart of the novel.
The animation is actually quite good, though diminished a bit by the period in which it was produced. In the late 1970’s, traditional cel animation was on its last legs, expensive as it is to produce, and took as many cues as it could from the limited style of cel animation used for television production. The backgrounds are lovingly rendered in watercolors, painterly in contrast to the fairly naturalistic though classically rendered “animation”. It’s interesting the writer/director Martin Rosen was not a director nor animator when he came to produce this film. It kind of shows, lacking a stylistic vision, but still strong in storytelling and true to the novel’s most important qualities, its characters and largest dramatic events.
The music (not so much the Art Garfunkel “Bright Eyes”, but the more classical theme music) resonated again with me, reminding me of how much this film meant to me back when I was 9. Clara has clung to the book since our reading of it and is slowly trying to read it herself.
It’s still a great and powerful thing.