Seemingly everyone who’s seen the animated 1978 adaptation of “Watership Down” has a horror story about how disturbingly brutal and violent it was. This is understandable and ridiculous.
It’s understandable, because the story is about rabbits, which we’re conditioned to associate with Thumper and Peter Cottontail. It’s ridiculous, because — well, what part of being a species perpetually hunted by predators who want to kill you and eat your flesh should not be disturbing?
Richard Adams, who wrote the 1972 novel, understood this. His saga imagines rabbits with politics, a religion and a language, but its story is about a band of survivors encountering hostile rivals, bloodthirsty predators and the casual deadliness of humans. (My wife, back when we read it with our kids, nicknamed it “Game of Bunnies.”) It’s a gorgeous fantasy, but one commingled, on a blood level, with nature.
So it’s a shame that the main thing that draws your eye, in Netflix’s emotional but blandified adaptation of “Watership Down” arriving Sunday, is the unnatural.
The original film was rendered in hand-drawn animation, with watercolor-like backgrounds, which underscored the contrast of beauty and brutality. This four-episode “Watership” is C.G.I., because that’s apparently what we do now with animation remakes.
The details — bristles of fur, ripples of water — are remarkable. Until something moves. Then the limitations, whether of craft or budget, become apparent. The stiff, floaty, uncanny motion looks like something from a ’90s CD-ROM video game.
This is a problem, because “Watership Down” is about rabbits, and rabbits move quite a lot. The chase and battle scenes, and there are many, are less “Jungle Book,” more “Voyage of Sinbad.”
You might adjust to it, eventually, because the core story is so immersive. Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), a runt troubled by prophetic visions, persuades his brother Hazel (James McAvoy) that their warren is doomed. The chief rabbit, Threarah (Tom Wilkinson), dismisses Fiver as a crackpot. He’s not about to ask his people to up and abandon their comfortable lives.
But Fiver is right — the culprit is humans, who gas and excavate the colony to make way for a housing development — and the mild-mannered Hazel leads a small group on a postapocalyptic exodus to a distant hill, the promised land Fiver has envisioned.
In between them and safety are rivers and train tracks, the “elil” (the “enemies,” foxes, owls and such) and the mindless, deadly “hrududil” (machines) of humans. But the ultimate enemy proves to be another rabbit, General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley, leaning into the big-bad role), who has turned his colony, Efrafa, into a militaristic kind of Bunny Sparta in the name of safety.
This “Watership,” a coproduction of BBC One and Netflix written by Tom Bidwell and directed by Noam Murro (“300: Rise of an Empire”), sticks fairly close to the novel. (Kehaar, the Eastern European-accented sea gull, is now Scottish for some reason, courtesy of Peter Capaldi’s voicing, but I may be the only crank bothered by this.)
But it soft-pedals some gory details. The recounting of the destruction of the warren — hauntingly rendered in the 1978 movie — is rushed through; when the group’s burly enforcer, Bigwig (John Boyega), deals a death blow to a crow, the scene cuts to a flash of lightning.
It is, nonetheless, not a carefree kids’ story at heart (though kids can definitely watch, as long as they know what to expect). The strength of Adams’s novel was how deeply it committed to imagining a whole culture for rabbitdom. What kind of society would evolve from creatures who lived their entire lives as prey?
Adams conceived an animistic religion, ruled by the sun (Lord Frith), with rabbits championed by El-ahrairah (“The prince with a thousand enemies”), a sort of trickster-figure combo of Anansi the spider and Bugs Bunny. (The series lays out their creation myth in a prologue whose silhouette art is its one creative stroke of animation.) Adams imagined rabbits not as people but as a people, whose identity is founded in pride over their history of persecution and survival.
I’d hoped the series would use its longer format to do more of this world-building. Instead, it mainly stretches out the fight and escape sequences, making it less a bittersweet story of survival and freedom and more like a summer family action-pic. (It also builds up some of the female characters, like the Efrafan rebel Hyzenthlay, voiced by Anne-Marie Duff; the novel, focused on the male rabbits’ quest for mates, is rather a rabbit sausage-fest.)
But if the Netflix “Watership Down” fails its potential, it benefits from strong voice performances (Boyega is expressive as the bluff but loyal Bigwig) and a solid central story. Even this easy-listening version, which lays on the romance, jokes and limp dialogue (“They may not have wanted a war, but by Frith, that’s what they’ll get”), has moments of grandeur and the sweep of a fantasy epic.
The 1978 movie is still available, and half the length. But the optimistic way of looking at this new “Watership” is not as a worse version of itself but a better version of “The Walking Dead”: a story about whether its wandering survivors can adapt to a plague without losing themselves, as well as about the terrible compromises that some make to stay alive.
The pestilence, in this case, is not zombies but us: human beings, who kill not from hunger but coldly and casually, because it’s mildly convenient. The ultimate insult that one rabbit delivers to an Efrafan soldier is, “You lack animality.”
The theme of the cataclysmic effect of humans rings as loudly in the wildfire hellscape of 2018 as it did in post-Earth Day 1972. I should note, though, that Adams always insisted that “Watership Down” was not any particular “sort of allegory or parable.”
That’s fine. There’s never any lack of situations to which you can apply the message here: that it can be deadly foolish to dismiss a prophet’s dire warning as hysterical, simply because it would be too horrible if it were true.
Streaming on Netflix on Sunday
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