A new generation of children might be enthralled and terrified by the BBC–Netflix adaptation of Watership Down, just as their parents were enthralled and terrified by the 1978 movie. That’s a testament to the power of Richard Adams’s best seller about a group of English rabbits fleeing the destruction of their warren and searching for a new homeland, because neither screen version is as great as it had every right to be. The ’70s version was undone by a certain slovenliness, as well as by characters that were intriguingly designed but indifferently rendered and poorly animated. This new incarnation is slicker and more expensive (and at 200 minutes, more than twice as long) but also lacking in fluidity and visual distinction. The creatures are stranded somewhere between photorealism and plasticized unreality, and while the scenes set at night, in driving rain, and in nightmares and fables have a bit of flair, anything set in daylight conjures not-fond memories of video games from the ’90s.
Most regrettably (and this is another quality it shares with the ’70s version, alas) there are too many scenes where it takes a moment to figure out which rabbit is which. This is a grave flaw that becomes more irritating the deeper you get into the story and the more emotionally attached to the characters you become. The definitive, fully satisfying screen version of Adams’s book hasn’t been made yet, and it’s a shame this one falls short technically and visually, because in every other way, it’s got the right idea.
Released in 1972, Adams’s novel was (and remains) an oddity that eludes easy labels. Written in the simple yet elevated language of a bedtime story, the narrative is so comfortable with death, and so steeped in mythology and animal-on-animal violence, that young children whose sensibilities were shaped by Pixar, Disney, and the like might be traumatized by it. The great migration is sparked by a premonition of mass death: One of the rabbits, Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), is afflicted by visions, and prophecies his warren’s bloody destruction by real-estate developers. A band of surviving bucks led by Fiver’s older brother Hazel (James McAvoy) and a bruising, tuft-headed, big-hearted soldier named Bigwig (John Boyega) wanders the countryside, searching for doe to repopulate the colony, and trying not to get killed by foxes, hawks, cats, dogs, and shotgun-wielding farmers.
In time, the story begins to seem like an allegory for a lot of things (including the exodus from Egypt, the rise of European fascism, and the Holocaust) even as it maintains its own diamond-hard integrity and satisfies the audience’s desire for daring escapes, bold confrontations, and moments of heroism, tenderness, and sacrifice. There’s even a bad guy who’s a literal heavy: General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley), a scarred old buck with one dead eye who’s described as the largest rabbit anyone has seen. Woundwort runs a heavily militarized warren where anyone who isn’t a soldier is a prisoner. As if to intensify the already strong World War II associations, Woundwort’s rabbits have dug a warren in the shadows of abandoned furnaces. Those structures, the plentiful barbed wire, and the constant debates over the morality of just following orders make the place feel like a concentration camp for bunnies.
Directed by Noam Murro (300: Rise of an Empire) from screenplays by Tom Bidwell, this four-part mini-series is impressively constructed, and each scene has been thoughtfully shaped. Watership Down follows multiple story lines and cross-cuts between complex action sequences, sometimes misguidedly — there are moments when you might wish they’d stuck with a moment a tad longer, rather than rushing to pick up another thread — but more often impressively, as in the final episode, a symphonic buildup of tension that resolves in an epic showdown followed by a touching postscript. Elsewhere, the mini-series takes its sweet time, pausing to develop the characters and let the audience marinate in the atmosphere of a verdant countryside that would feel like Eden if we weren’t attuned to the instincts of the rabbits, who are constantly sniffing the air for signs of menace.
Like Adams’s novel and the previous adaptation, this Watership Down is keenly aware that death could come for any creature at any moment. It isn’t as free with bloodletting as the 1978 version — which suggested Walt Disney by way of Sam Peckinpah — but it doesn’t stint on cruelty and fear, either. Many of the rabbits have scars and shredded ears going into the story, and many others acquire them as the tale unfolds. Hazel, an old-fashioned hero distinguished by his kindness and decency, is constantly chastising the General’s men (and sometimes his own colleagues) for failing to make the ethical or compassionate choice, at one point chiding another rabbit for lacking “animality.” The self-defeating nature of personality cults comes through strongly in all the scenes involving Woundwort, a despot who starts to seem pathetic as well as scary once you realize he’d rather control his territory and strengthen his aura than guide his fellow rabbits into the future. Just when things threaten to get too dire for their own good, Watership Down throws in a bit of slapstick or wordplay, often in scenes involving an absentminded seagull named Keehar (Peter Capaldi) who becomes the rabbits’ secret weapon.
Like the source novel and the 1978 film, the mini-series seesaws between being scrupulously accurate about the animal kingdom and just making stuff up (despite a prologue in which the lapine god Frith punishes the rabbits for overpopulating the globe, Bidwell and Munro make it seem as if the creatures are monogamous). But none of that really affects our ability to empathize with the plucky heroes, who are as charming and mostly unsentimental as the bands of adventurers that used to prowl through Tolkien’s fiction. The filmmakers also correct one of the major oversights in the book — the lack of fully developed female characters — by integrating the doe into the main action, creating memorable parts for Gemma Arterton (as the resourceful Clover) and Olivia Colman (as Strawberry, a boy rabbit in prior versions), among others. Preternaturally wise kids who’ve survived dark times may appreciate how Watership Down frankly confronts hard facts of existence that other animation studios tap-dance around. One of these is the notion that — to quote the Black Rabbit of Inle (Rosamund Pike), the rabbits’ equivalent of the reaper — death is always our companion whether we know it or not, and our time on Earth is just a holiday from walking alongside her.