Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Reel Review: WATERSHIP DOWN Criterion Collection Blu-ray

In 1978, Richard Adams’ beloved novel WATERSHIP DOWN was faithfully and lovingly brought to the big screen by director Martin Rosen. The animated film, telling the story of a dystopian community of rabbits who seek safety and harmony away from tyranny and oppression, was not only a box office and critical hit, but a landmark in the animated film genre; with its dark undertones, violence, emotional power and allegory about freedom and political turmoil, WATERSHIP DOWN was an animated film made for adults. For decades the film did not see a proper home release, and it sadly shifted into the realm of obscure and forgotten movies whose VHS copies gather dust in the corner of second-hand thrift stores. But no longer. 

The Criterion Collection, known for their faithful restorations of important classic and contemporary films, has finally brought WATERSHIP DOWN home in the glorious Blu-ray format; giving the world a chance to remember or discover this important film. 

This new transfer, which was rightfully created from the original 35mm negatives, gives WATERSHIP DOWN the justice it deserves. The hand-drawn animation style, ranging from a detailed natural look for the rabbits and lush watercolored landscapes, is simply stunning. Colors are rich and deep, and the film maintains its original “glow” and avoids the cold harshness that many older animated films suffer from when upgraded to high-definition. The music, which includes the magnificent song Bright Eyes (sung by Art Garfunkel), is powerful and sounds crisp and clean and deep. 

Despite its age, WATERSHIP DOWN as a movie still works very well. The simple plot of a group of rabbits seeking freedom via a long “road-trip” across the countryside while avoiding pursuit, danger, and finding new allies, is classic in nature and works well in this beautiful and unique setting. The strong British cast, which includes John Hurt, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, Richard Briers, and Joss Ackland are all perfect. The main character, Hazel, voiced by Hurt, is worthy of the title of a big-screen hero…while the main villain, General Woundwort (Harry Andrews), deserves to be looked at as one of the best villains ever drawn. 

As a wee-lad, this Blogger fondly remembers discovering WATERSHIP DOWN on a new cable channel called HBO…and that discovery left an impression to this day. Besides the very-adult themes present, this was a violent movie for animation to tackle. The rabbits fight and battle each other by way of biting, gnawing, scratching, stabbing, and ripping off ears in horrible fashion. Blood is spilled often, and the crimson red color is shocking to see in an animated flick…and this is where the film’s legacy begins. WATERSHIP DOWN was an animated film aimed at adults. Today it is commonplace for animated films to go dark, but it was WATERSHIP DOWN which paved the way…and also wasn’t afraid to go for a powerful emotional wallop at the end. 

The Blu-ray extras include (but not limited to) a new interview with director Martin Rosen, who guides us through the then-massive task of bringing WATERSHIP DOWN to the screen…and with director Guillermo del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH), who talks about the film’s importance in animation history; all rounding out another very solid Criterion release. This Blogger has been waiting decades for WATERSHIP DOWN to come home. As a wee-lad it was an eye-opener, and as an adult an important addition to any movie collection. 

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