Watership Down (Blu-ray) (1978)

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Released 6-Mar-2019

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Animation None
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1978
Running Time 91:52
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Programme
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Martin Rosen
Studio
Distributor

Umbrella Entertainment
Starring John Hurt
Richard Briers
Michael Graham Cox
John Bennett
Ralph Richardson
Simon Cadell
Terence Rigby
Roy Kinnear
Richard O'Callaghan
Denholm Elliott
Zero Mostel
Harry Andrews
Case Standard Blu-ray
RPI $19.95 Music Angela Morley


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    A passion project for writer-director Martin Rosen, 1978's Watership Down is an adaptation of the treasured novel of the same name by Richard Adams, compressing the 413-page source into a streamlined 92-minute animated movie. At its core, this is a survivalist adventure picture with political undertones, and it's a genre classic that is most remembered for not being suitable for little kids. Indeed, do not let the cutesy rabbit characters or the PG rating fool you, as Watership Down is brutal and harrowing, the furthest thing imaginable from a classic Disney movie. It's a confident and remarkably realised anthropomorphic vision, bolstered by sumptuous animation and a roster of sublime actors who deliver the material with astute sincerity.

    In a crowded, regimental warren near Sandleford in the United Kingdom, rabbit Fiver (Richard Briers) has an apocalyptic vision which convinces him that the entire burrow is in grave danger. Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt) attempt to convince the chief rabbit (Ralph Richardson) to evacuate, but are fiercely ignored, with the chief announcing that nobody can leave the warren. Following a conflict, Fiver and Hazel, along with several other rabbits - including Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) and Blackberry (Simon Cadell) - manage to escape, setting out in search of a new home. A perilous, uncertain road lies ahead of them, with the threat of death lurking around every corner in the form of rats, birds of prey, dogs, as well as humans, who wield firearms and set snare traps. The group is also in need of mates, while soldierly rabbits in another dictatorial warren represent further danger.

    Beginning with a mythological prologue which outlines the rabbit species' genesis, a rich world buttresses Watership Down, with the animals living in constant fear of predators, as the fragility of their lives is continually underscored. The warren communities, meanwhile, are patriarchal and oppressive, enforced by de facto policemen and military types. The rabbits of this story are hard-bitten as a result of their difficult living conditions, and were not designed for maximum cuteness. In Rosen's hands, Watership Down is uncompromising and hard-edged, with a sense of danger permeating the story. No matter how cute the rabbits, they are killed off without sentimentality, reflecting the cruelty of nature in the real world. This is a violent movie despite its PG rating - there's Fiver's initial vision of a field running with blood, one of the rabbits almost dying in a snare, a fierce dog killing several rabbits, as well as a bloody final showdown - and some of the images here may even haunt adults, let alone children. Nevertheless, there is tact to the brutality, while a feeling of hope is tangible amid the film's confronting grimness. Additionally, humour does break up the callousness, particularly in the form of a black-headed seagull named Kehaar, voiced by the late great Zero Mostel in his final big screen performance.

    Vividly brought to life with hand-drawn animation against stylised watercolour backgrounds, Watership Down carries a striking sense of picturesque beauty. The animation admittedly lacks immaculate fluidity, and the drawings may appear somewhat crude to 21st century moviegoers, however genuine love and care is evident in every frame of this animated gem. The rabbits, for instance, burst with personality, with the tiniest behavioural nuances enhancing the illusion. A superb original score (credited to Angela Morley and Malcolm Williamson) augments the sense of danger and tension, and the film additionally features the touching song "Bright Eyes" which was sung by Art Garfunkel. Watership Down further benefits from a cast of esteemed British actors, including Hurt as well as Denholm Elliott and Nigel Hawthorne, who infuse the material with honest-to-goodness gravitas. At times you might have trouble distinguishing the rabbits from one another, and the film is occasionally lethargic even though it was edited by the superlative Terry Rawlings (Alien, Blade Runner), but these are minor shortcomings.

    Produced on a meagre budget, Watership Down is a timeless classic which still packs a punch in the 21st century, representing a rare type of animated film that is geared more towards adults than children. Involving and breathtaking, this is animation at a deeper level, tackling complex subject matter that lingers in the mind after viewing. In spite of the movie's violence, it is still a rewarding watch, even if it is easier to admire than conventionally enjoy. The novel was later adapted into both a television show and an animated miniseries.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Watership Down has been available on Blu-ray in various international territories for some time, but Umbrella Entertainment's disc denotes the movie's long-awaited Australian Blu-ray debut. Framed at 1.78:1, which is slightly altered from the original aspect ratio is 1.85:1 (I'm not sure if this is cropped or open matte), Umbrella's 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is placed on a single-layer BD-25 with a superb average video bitrate of 32.76 Mbps. This appears to be the same video master used by Criterion for their 2015 Blu-ray, and that was reportedly the same master used for the film's 2013 Blu-ray release in the United Kingdom. From the outset, it's clear that this is a winning Blu-ray presentation that justifies its existence and trounces the dated old DVD, showing sharp object delineation and improved textures while also retaining a healthy grain structure. Although not quite perfect, it's an ideal way to experience Watership Down on home video.

    The first few frames show off the transfer's strengths in droves, with bright, vibrant colours and an organic appearance. Watership Down was produced long before digital animation was a thing; it was finished on 35mm film, and luckily there are no signs of grain management or other unnecessary digital manipulation such as edge enhancement. The characters look comparatively basic from a detail perspective, but the backgrounds are consistently eye-catching, showing hundreds of blades of grass and leaves hanging from trees. It's all brilliantly resolved by Umbrella's encode, which never falls victim to any video anomalies such as aliasing, banding or macroblocking. And since the presentation is afforded such a generous video bitrate, the image carries an appreciable tightness, with grain that looks gorgeous and consistently refined as opposed to chunky or blocky. Some may baulk at grain for an animated movie, but it serves to make the image look more textured, not to mention it's accurate to the source and the animation techniques of the period. I was also impressed with the transfer's outstanding sharpness, which does justice to the animation. Any slightly soft-looking parts of the frame, such as the splotchy watercolour backgrounds, are entirely deliberate. Colours are lush and satisfying to boot, with brilliant greenery and vibrant primaries, though again it's still limited by the deliberate animation style. Blood certainly looks bold and impactful whenever a character is maimed.

    The only real negative about this presentation is flickering from time to time, with brightness levels almost constantly flickering between frames. This happens on and off, at varying levels of severity, throughout the movie. Once you notice it, it's difficult to ignore. There's some noticeable gate weave to boot, with the image shaking quite badly at times, while gently wobbling in other scenes. White specks also appear occasionally, as well as hairs and other film artefacts, though they're not distracting enough to diminish the transfer's positive qualities. This is all traceable to the HD video master supplied to Umbrella, which again dates back as far as 2013 or earlier, so restoration techniques have come a long way in the interim. Perhaps another restoration will occur one day, which brings more balance and stability to the image. But that is not to impugn this extremely good Blu-ray presentation, which is easy to watch and will please any and all fans wanting to revisit this classic in high definition.

    No subtitles are included.

Video Ratings Summary
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Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The disc's sole audio option is a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, which is mono and 24-bit. It's clear that the audio was restored with the same care and attention to detail as the video, as the track is clean and easy to listen to. The recording equipment of the era does admittedly limit the clarity of the audio, but it's still very good, with perfectly comprehensible dialogue, clear music, and crisp sound effects. The track is welcomely free of hissing, crackling, popping, drop-outs and sync issues. Since this is a mono track, there is absolutely no surround activity; the track plays solely through the front channels. Likewise, don't expect anything in the way of subwoofer activity.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    There are absolutely no extras. The disc does not even feature a disc menu; the movie begins automatically once the disc is inserted.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Compared to Criterion's Region A-locked Blu-ray, Umbrella's disc misses out on

    The UK Blu-ray from Universal contains:
    However, the UK release has a lossy Dolby Digital soundtrack.

    Meanwhile, the original Australian DVD release contains:
    So that's a whole lot of material from different territories, with no complete definitive release to speak of. I'll give the win to the Region A Criterion.

Summary

    A quintessential non-children's animated movie, Watership Down stands the test of time. Despite limitations to the fluidity of the animation, it's frequently gorgeous to look at, and the story still packs a punch.

    For the film's debut Blu-ray release in Australia, Umbrella offers a pleasing high definition video presentation, and a solid lossless 2.0 audio track. Unfortunately, there are no extras - this is another barebones release. Nevertheless, for fans of the movie simply wanting to upgrade their DVDs, this is sufficient.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Callum Knox (I studied biology)
Saturday, September 07, 2019
Review Equipment
DVDSony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayLG OLED65E6T. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 2160p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. This audio decoder/receiver has not been calibrated.
AmplificationSamsung Series 7 HT-J7750W
SpeakersSamsung Tall Boy speakers, 7.1 set-up

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