Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, and spending a lot of money on presents that may not be exactly what the recipient really wanted. Do you have friends and relations who give great gifts or have you been in training for weeks to perfect your thank-you face? Shining eyes under a paper cracker crown, broad grin, scrabbling around in the box hoping they’ve included the receipt? “Thanks very much for the 6 pack of pan scourers Nana!” Does that sound familiar at all?
The new Watership Down adaptation showing on BBC1 and Netflix made me think they should have kept the receipt. This was one of the early festive highlights with a rumoured budget of £20 million for state-of-the-art CG animation and seems to have put the flop in Flopsy Bunny with very mixed reviews across the board. And it’s not just the ‘we should never do remakes’ crowd feeling grinchy towards these cottontails.
Last night the BBC aired two episodes of Watership Down back-to-back (jammed together with odd title cards to remind BBC1 viewers this was intended for Netflix) which did feel like something of a misery marathon. And this is coming from someone who was loyal to The Walking Dead for seven long painful years. For the uninitiated Watership Down is essentially TWD with bobtails. Hazel, his brother Fiver and their small company leave their idyllic warren when Fiver receives a prophetic dream that death is coming at the hands of the humans. And of course, he’s right. Sadly his brother Hazel, the anointed but reluctant leader of the expedition isn’t inspiring enough to lead all the rabbits away from the colony. Basically don’t worry about learning names early on as most of those rabbits you meet will be gonners shortly. So this is a rag-tag bunch of survivors ranging across the countryside looking for a safe home, finding outposts filled with various strange and dangerous factions along the way. If only Hazel could wear a Sheriff’s hat the image would be complete, but it’s difficult with such large ears.
Speaking of the ears, the faces, the bodies and the lithe back legs, these famous rabbits don’t look much like rabbits and there’s certainly nothing cute about them. I’m no country girl, but those creatures are hares. I thought maybe that was just a stylistic choice on the part of the artists involved, but later on we meet a farm cat whose features look more like Garfield than anything found in nature.
The visuals, apart from the gorgeous vistas over fields and down dales, are all slightly wonky and a bit disappointing, certainly when you remember that extraordinary budget. These animals are not attractive and at dusk or in the rain they’re actually quite hard to see. At speed especially they look like stilted computer game characters hopping around at the wrong frame rate. The fighting consistently looks messy which is a shame as this story from beginning to end is mainly about fighting. The fur and whiskers are superb, but maybe too realistic, setting high expectations for how their faces and bodies should move.
This picaresque story mainly deals in warfare between rival gangs and it’s all very macho. It begins with a resolutely male cast and along with finding safety they frequently mention the need to find ladies to join the new colony or else the boys will inevitably fight amongst themselves. Thankfully we go no further into the biological reasons for that.
Writer Richard Adams was a champion world builder with layers of rather odd rabbit language to get used to plus their ancient superstitions and creation myths. This is a real coherent society. I don’t know how you’d append a TV show with a glossary but they really need to figure out how.
John Boyega as Bigwig is splendidly cast, as is Olivia Colman as Strawberry (the only female rabbit we really get to know in the first two episodes) and Mackenzie Crook as Hawkbit. The casts is all A-list through and through which is helpful. Listen out for those voices your recognise as telling the rabbits apart by how they look is nigh-on impossible. The soft South West accents especially in Cowslip’s cult pleasingly make those rabbits sound a lot like the villagers from Hot Fuzz. “It’s all for the greater good. The greater good!”.
I know Watership Down is a children’s classic that haunts many of us. Show me someone who says they can listen to Bright Eyes with dry eyes and I’ll show you a liar. But compared to the 1978 film the Radio Times said this version is less scary. People – that’s straight bullshit. Fiver’s dreams and his vision of blood flooding over the landscape is just as horrific as it ever was. This is a drama of constant threat – no one and nowhere is safe. Even the sanctuary and charity of other rabbits can’t always be trusted. And hovering over everything is the shadow of brutal human intervention.
If you can put aside your irritation at underwhelming and yet eye-wateringly expensive animation then give this a go, but if you really want to frighten your loved ones this Christmas give them the book instead.
Watership Down episodes 1 and 2 are on BBC iPlayer and on Netflix for international viewers.