'Watership Down': TV Review

Thrilling and emotional, despite the animation style.
12/25/2018

An all-star voice cast from Britain brings the classic Richard Adams novel to life in a less scary but entertaining way for Netflix.

Watership Down, the 1972 Richard Adams novel, is one of the best-selling books in history, a beloved story of rabbits forced to flee their warren as a planned British subdivision digs into the land. As the rabbits scatter on a journey to find a new home, they fall into a classic battle of survival against the elements, people, other animals and, most notably, other rabbits. If you read the book, it was probably impossible not to cry or care. And then came the movie.

In 1978, the film Watership Down became legendary for scaring the bejeezus out of children everywhere, drawn there by parents who either didn't read the book or thought it would hide — not graphically triple down on — all the violence from the book. It's funny now because so many people have harrowing stories of how that defined their early childhood.

On Christmas Day, Netflix, in a co-production with the BBC, will drop the eagerly awaited, star-studded latest version, a four-part effort that tones down the movie's bloodshed and finds a good balance, letting Adams' story unfold as it did in the book (with some tweaks) and suffering no loss of drama by curtailing those awful bunny screams.

Having seen the whole thing, the biggest obstacle the new version has to overcome is that the animation is decidedly flatter than what modern moviegoers are used to in the last chunk of years (decade?), and it's often difficult to figure out which rabbit is talking or which rabbits are in peril as they fight other rabbits to survive. The saving grace to all of that, of course, is the magnificent voice cast that seems to be employing every available actor in Britain.

James McAvoy is Hazel, the reluctant leader of our band of rabbits, who trusts the visions of his little brother Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), who sees (but doesn't fully comprehend) all kinds of bad things in his dreams. It's the dangerous back-hoes digging up the green fields in rural England that Fiver first imagines, and his prediction that blood will run through the tunnels sends a small band of rabbits on the run (spoiler alert — all but a couple are killed, so Fiver was right).

John Boyega voices Bigwig, the protector rabbit who helps the frightened rabbits take off on their initial journey. Fiver has seen a safe warren, what is to become known as Watership Down, and the idea is that even though it's a risk to get there, it has to be done.

The plucky group, soaked from rain and tired, first encounter Cowslip (Rory Kinnear), a stranger rabbit who seems super nice and says his warren can take them all in (only Fiver is dubious, and you know what that means). Let's just say that after some interesting discoveries, the rabbits decide to move on, and the one good thing they take from that experience is that Strawberry (Olivia Colman) wants to come with them. In the book, Strawberry was a male (buck), but here Strawberry is a female (doe). 

Further afield for our merry band of bunnies are deadly humans in the form of shotguns and cars and various travails, but eventually they get to their preferred new warren and then reality hits them — they don't really have any does, except Strawberry.

But en route to Watership Down, the rabbits pass a farm, and Hazel realizes that rabbits are being held there in a hutch and they are mostly does (but there's a big ferocious dog, plus there's a cat, a farmer with a shotgun — and have I mentioned that all that lush English countryside is flush with foxes?). So there's peril. Adding to the epic resettling is the fact that, outside of Bigwig, these aren't really tough rabbits. They're not fighters. But near their new, allegedly safe Watership Down warren, they discover a neighboring warren, Efrafa, where there seems to be an overwhelming number of extra does. (And yes, if you're wondering, Watership Down is able to make this less of a sexist story than it may appear on the surface, since does are the only ones who can dig a proper warren in the first place and a number of them are pretty fierce — but keeping the old-timey storytelling of Adams in mind, this isn't progressively feminist territory).

Of course, Efrafa turns out to be a nightmare, essentially a locked-down camp of ruthless bucks (most giant in size compared to our fluffy original band of rabbits), and the Efrafa are led by General Woundwart (Ben Kingsley), who doesn't take kindly to his neighbors peeking around or asking about available does who might want to start a new life up the road.

And so Watership Down becomes — or continues to be — about survival. With does needing saving at the farm and all that breakout plan entails, plus an attack-minded band of evil rivals just across the fields, staying safe and remaining free are the dramatic challenges at hand.

Allowing for the sweetness in Adams' original work to come out in this modern take is part of what makes the BBC-Netflix version work best.

The conversations and character development of the rabbits are the bricks that build the story. And while the animation is at first a downside — seemingly retro, too saturated with brown and black tones, making many of the rabbits indistinguishable from one another — that limitation allows the voice work to shine, which, of course, relies heavily on Adams' lovely descriptions (the miniseries was written and adapted by Tom Bidwell and directed by Noam Murro). 

Peter Capaldi has a great turn as Kehaar, the annoying and absent-minded gull who helps the rabbits, adding another layer of comedy to a series that is warmly humorous in other spots as well (Mackenzie Crook's Hawkbit, geekily desperate for a doe; Daniel Kaluuya's Bluebell the jokester; and Daniel Rigby's storyteller, Dandelion).

Everywhere you turn, someone is doing their best vocal work to make an otherwise indiscernible rabbit stand out. There's Anne-Marie Duff's Hyzenthlay, the bad-ass doe; Rosamund Pike's Black Rabbit of Inle, who comes for you (sweetly) in death; and other fine work, including from Gemma Arterton, Taron Egerton, Tom Wilkinson, Lee Ingleby, Freddie Fox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, James Watkins, Craig Parkinson and Gemma Chan.

Through the years, Watership Down as a book and story has been feasted on by readers as a cryptic allegory for everything from Christianity to communism, class structure, military tyranny and more. But Adams always said it was just a story about rabbits, pure and simple.

And really that's what stands out the most. It won't be lost on anyone that rabbits are prey and constantly in danger. The book and this new miniseries succeed in making you care about rabbits, feeling their vulnerability and becoming invested in their group dynamics, friendships and family, which is essential to the drama once the danger kicks in. An overarching theme of the book is that man destroys things needlessly, especially animals, and that comes through here clearly as well.

While it's not for children, especially young children, there's a lot of enjoyment and entertainment to be had from this new adaptation, precisely because the story resonates. (The book contains plenty of mythological and folkloric elements concerning rabbit life, which are fleetingly addressed but mostly understandable in the first episode — though you can always do a deep dive on that aspect if you haven't read the source material.) 

Cast: James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega, Mackenzie Crook, Peter Capaldi, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Colman, Ben Kingsley, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Kaluuya, Taron Egerton, Lee Ingleby, Charlotte Spencer, Daniel Rigby, Freddie Fox, Anne-Marie Duff, Miles Jupp, James Faulkner, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Rory Kinnear, Craig Parkinson, Jason Watkins, Gemma Chan
Written and adapted by: Tom Bidwell
Directed by: Noam Murro
Premieres: Dec. 25 (Netflix)