WD1 copy

 

As you may-or-may-not-know, I read a lot. Along with consuming pages at a slightly absurd pace, I also tend to finish everything I pick-up, regardless of how much I am truly enjoying it. I guess a part of me is always hoping things might improve.

It wasn’t always that way though. Just four or five years ago, I read far less and would think nothing of bailing on a book that wasn’t grabbing me. One such casualty was Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I just couldn’t get into it! The bunnies seemed cool, and the prose was lovely…but it just didn’t grab me early-on the way the books I cling to tend to grab me.

So when time came to watch the animated adaptation for this year’s Blind Spot Series, I wondered if I would fare much better than that failed attempt at reading.

WATERSHIP DOWN is the tale of bunnies trying to migrate through a countryside that is full of threats from all directions. It starts “at the beginning” as it were, by revealing that when an almighty force was creating earth as we know it, it was unimpressed by bunnies’ voracious appetites and staggering desire to multiply. When rabbits scoffed at toning down their nature, they were made prey for all other creatures as a punishment. Eventually, when the rabbit population had been both thinned and threatened by predators, the almighty force granted them the gift of speed and slyness…meaning that they’d still be easily killed if a predator caught them, but now the trick would be to actually catch one.

In the present, a burrow of bunnies are told of a vision one of their group has had – a great threat that is headed their way. It befalls them to leave the home they know and head across the countryside to a safer and more promising Watership. How many from the burrow make it to the end of the migration remains to be seen.
WD3

 

There is a large swatch of film fans out there who get giddy at the mere mention of traditional animation. Eschew computer graphics for painted cells, and you can almost recite the nostalgic homily chapter and verse.

While I don’t quite count myself in their midst, I will admit that there is some lovely artwork going on in this film that really pops in comparison to a lot of what we see in modern commercial animation.

Time and again, I found myself having to rewind a scene after I got lost in the brushwork of the background. This isn’t quite the artistic benchmark that BAMBI is – nor is it as abstract – but there’s a warmth to WATERSHIP DOWN that bubbles it a little bit above the contemporary animation of its era.

What’s more, there’s something about seeing the story come to life that gives the characters a bit more individuality. When I read the book, part of my struggle came down to not truly being able to tell one bunny from another (I didn’t get to the point where the really evil rabbits arrived). So while I still had trouble committing character names to memory (would it have killed Adams to name one of these furballs something simple like “Flopsy”?)…at least I could focus on “small grey one”, “big brown one”, “weird evil one”, and so on.

However, as much as I love to wax on about traditional painted cell animation, I feel like it’s time to admit something. Computer animation has been the norm and the benchmark for almost twenty years now. So much so, that there is an entire generation of young moviegoers who grew-up on it. The tipping point is coming where art like what we see here is what will seem “off”…and to rail on about how much “better” it is will sound like the rantings of people who don’t want to let time pass and watch art evolve.

 

WD4

It’s impossible to watch WATERSHIP DOWN and not get caught-up in its violence. Like – just look at that image above. While this isn’t the sort of animated viciousness you might find in seinen anime, it still doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the animal instincts of the animal kingdom. From the scraps the rabbits get into with each other (and a few other animals), to the visuals of them being snared or shot, WATERSHIP DOWN never really seems concerned with tamping the carnage down for the innocent eyes in the audience.

Perhaps this is what happens when an adult story is given an animated adaptation. After all, it’s not like Martin Rosen and company were adapting a fairy tale, or a Saturday morning cartoon. This is a 400+ page novel meant for adults, with as much to say about human nature as animal nature.

And yet, one gets the feeling that if one of the major studios were to take a stab at this story nowadays, they would clip its claws or pull its fangs. Why? There is nothing in this film that a child couldn’t see on The Discovery Channel…or YouTube…or even in their own backyard depending on how rural their surroundings. The violence of WATERSHIP DOWN, while striking, is a welcome change for how often animated films feel the need to pull their punches.

While the film’s rating did cause concern in the years that followed, one wonders if children are actually far more resilient to this sort of darkness and violence than adults give them credit for.

(We all turned out alright, right?)
WD2

 

The hardest truth I have to face in reflecting on WATERSHIP DOWN is how it ultimately left me feeling pretty cold. The art in it is charming and wonderful with all its mattes and painted cells, and the previously mentioned violence is indelible. Beyond those two details though, this film is likely to fade from my memory faster than any blindspot selection I have seen so far.

was struck by the theme of motion to preserve life, and how humanity is the only animal that feels compelled to stay in-place. Ultimately though, I was most driven to give the book another chance, not to track down a copy of this film to take a beloved place on the shelf.

Perhaps this film is to ANIMAL FARM as 1984 is to A BRAVE NEW WORLD; which is to say that the story you experience first is the one you latch to the most. Or perhaps everyone who recommended this film to me was remembering when they first came across it as children, and I didn’t get that same experience in coming to it as an adult.

Such is life. Some titles are iconic, but don’t exactly resonate on a personal level. So while I did manage to finish the story this time around, I don’t see the volume taking a place of honour on my shelf anytime soon.

But hey – cute bunnies!

 

blind-spot-01

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

 

Here’s the round-up for May so far…

 

Erin watched IL GRIDO

Keisha watched PARIS, TEXAS

Coog watched APOCALYPSE NOW

Wendell watched THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

Andy played catch-up, watching FITZCARRALDO, BELLE ET LA BETE, and MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA

Sean watched M BUTTERFLY

Brittani watched SLEEPERS