Would you have believed an epic tale of tyranny, betrayal, and talking rabbits would become such a beloved story nearly 50 years after its original publication? Author Richard Adams likely did not, but after nearly five decades, “Watership Down” has been continually adapted for generations of audiences. Teaming Netflix with BBC One, the latest retelling attempts to deliver the story to a new audience, utilizing modern technology and a stellar voice cast to help set it apart from the rest. Unfortunately, this new version of the classic tale fails to live up to the source material.
If the title feels familiar, here’s some background. Adams’ “Watership Down” was published in England in 1972. Having been rejected by a number of publishers, one eventually took on the curious tale of rabbits maneuvering a volatile world. The critical reception was glowing, and in 1978 an animated film was made. The 1978 adaptation, directed by Martin Rosen with voice talents the like of John Hurt, was well-received due to its close retelling of the story. But as an animated feature made for adults, any child who saw it was likely terrified by the visuals and intense story. Over the years, “Watership Down” was adapted into a tamer TV series, a radio dramatization, and various plays.
The latest reincarnation of Adams’ novel gets a needed narrative update, but with animation that only weighs it down. The four-part miniseries follows a group of rabbits as they survive the changing world around them. When Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) wakes from a violent premonition, he convinces his brother Hazel (James McAvoy) that they must leave their home and find a new one, before the fields they call home are developed by humans. Leaving with a few of their fellow rabbits, the company traverse unknown terrain, encountering a number of threats before finding their new home. When a contingent of the party breaks off to reach out to another warren, circumstances grow even worse and the tale, far darker. Confronting a tyrannical rabbit by the name of General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley), the new down and its inhabitants must rescue their mates, free the imprisoned rabbits, and fight off their worst threat.
Director Noam Murro’s re-imagining of Adams’ novel is a condensed adaptation with some needed modernizing. Most notably, the original story had few female characters, and those that were a part of the story weren’t exactly active participants in the action. With a script by Tom Bidwell, characters like Hyzenthlay, Clover, and Strawberry (originally a male character in the novel) are given a level of agency that feels more contemporary. Parts of the novel are omitted for the sake of focusing on the main plot, but the mythos Adams’ so vividly built in his “Watership Down” is still an essential part of the tale. As written, the mini-series is quite engaging, and this recent adaptation will likely bring in younger viewers who won’t feel the absolute melancholy of its ’78 animated predecessor.
That’s likely one of the greatest takeaways of this new “Watership Down.” Murro blends the intrigue and interpretations adults found with the novel, and first film, while making the series easier to digest for younger viewers. The voice cast assembled also puts in great work, particularly McAvoy, Hoult, Kingsley, John Boyega, Anne-Marie Duff, and Gemma Arterton. Unfortunately, that’s really the best the mini-series has to offer. While the writing and story have been adapted to be more appealing, the series never really digs deep in terms of the commentary it is making about the way humans interact with the creatures of the world or the cruelty of tyrants. Like Fiver’s dreams, we only get fragments of a complete vision.
Perhaps it is a positive-negative of what Murro sets out to do, taking a story for children and adults and making it accessible to both parties. But what holds the mini-series back more than anything is the animation. Far more akin to an early 2000s video game, the animation, much like the subtext of the mini-series, doesn’t appear fully realized either. Visually, the characters look a little more like skeletons than what they could wholly embody. And when you’re supposed to find yourself lost in a world of talking rabbits and the emotional weight of their journey, sub-par animation adds a layer of disbelief that hinders the story.
On the whole, Murro’s adaptation feels safe. The mini-series doesn’t require effort to stay engaged, and for fans of the source material it’s well worth the watch to see how Bidwell interprets Adams characters and subverts the male dominated tale with a resilient female presence and a script that moves from sub-plot to main narrative easily. On paper, Murro’s “Watership Down” reads like an epic, if only the terrible animation and vague commentary didn’t hold it back. [C+]