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TV Review: Watership Down

SYNOPSIS: Set in the idyllic rural landscape of southern England, this tale of adventure, courage, and survival follows a band of rabbits on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards a promised land and a more perfect society.

Watership Down, Netflix, BBC, TV Review, James McAvoy, Ben Kingsley, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Peter Capaldi

REVIEW: Watership Down is a book that I remember reading back in middle school. Like Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies, Richard Adams' novel is a surprisingly dark look at the survival of the fittest told through the lens of an unlikely cast of characters. The book has previously been adapted as an animated film and a television series, both presented in traditional cel drawn format. It has been years since the novel has been brought to life and a whole generation has likely missed out on this story. Well, just in time for Christmas breaks at schools everywhere, the BBC and Netflix are bringing a new adaptation that blends the dark and faithful film version with the more sprawling series format that allows so much more of the source material to make it to the finished product.

This new take on the material comes from director Noam Murro (300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE) who has an amazing cast of talent populating the tale. Led by James McAvoy, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Colman, and Nicholas Hoult, the cast also incudes John Boyega, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Kaluuya, Peter Capaldi, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Taron Egerton and Rosamund Pike amongst many other names that will be recognizable to BBC fans. No one takes a cheap paycheck here with each actor putting in as much effort as they would for a feature film project and the results help drive the intense and powerful story home.

If you are unfamiliar with Watership Down, it follows the rabbit Hazel (McAvoy) who believes that the apocalyptic vision of his psychic brother Fiver (Hoult) spells doom for his rabbit clan. Gathering a small group, the rabbits depart their home and journey to multiple locations where they try to start a new life. Along the way, they encounter animals and humans who hunt and kill some of them and explore other rabbit communities as they try to find a fit for their political and social needs. Yes, you heard me right. There is a deep psychological and sociological side to this story that allows us to analyze our own human society through the much more basic and primal needs of rabbits. Through this, we get to see a simplified yet very powerful examination of what it takes to live and survive when the odds are against you.

The first caution I would make is that this is absolutely not a film for small children. There is a reason the book is taught at middle school levels and the violence and death that take place in this story are too much for younger kids to endure. But, it is definitely a worthwhile tale for your older children who want something edgier than FROZEN or HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. This presentation maintains the more intense sequences from the novel and presents what may be the grittiest animated story I have ever seen. This take is superior to either of the previous adaptations because it is so faithful to the source material and updates some of the dialogue where appropriate without losing the core of the novel.

Watership Down, Netflix, BBC, TV Review, James McAvoy, Ben Kingsley, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Peter Capaldi

From a technical standpoint, the only thing lacking from this version of Watership Down is the quality of the animation. Nowhere near the bar we have seen from Pixar, Dreamworks, Illumination, or LAIKA, the animation here ranges from realistic in regards to the backdrops and natural elements to poor wen it comes to the body movements of the animals. The faces of the rabbits are incredibly emotive and you easily come to identify with them as distinct characters, but when they move or the scenes get more action to them, the quality drops significantly. There is one sequence with a cat that looks particularly cheap and it takes you out of the drama of the scene and undermines the story itself.

Watership Down is a great story and has a great cast assembled. Under the direction of Noam Murro, the tale feels fresh and is a more comprehensive and faithful adaptation of the book than the animated feature film or television series. The pacing is a bit slow and is a little stretched over five episodes, but fans of the book will enjoy seeing the story told for a new generation. Despite that, the animation is just lacking enough nuance to make this feel as epic as it needs to. Adults may be turned off by the animation style and younger viewers may mistakenly think this is appropriate for them (it is not). This production is perfect for the demographic that is looking for something edgier than Disney but may not be quite ready for Marvel. Everyone else will be enthralled by the layered story but bored by the lackluster animation.

Watership Down premieres December 23rd on Netflix.

Source: JoBlo.com

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