Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is resurrected once again this Sunday (Dec. 23), as Netflix debuts a brand-new version of Watership Down, Richard Adams’ famed 1972 novel about a group of rabbits who flee their doomed home and struggle to set up a new colony in the shadow of an evil neighboring community. For those who grew up with Adams’ tome—or, for that matter, 1978’s serviceable animated film adaptation—it’ll be a familiar journey, altered only in minor ways from its source material and enhanced by a sterling cast of A-list British voice actors led by James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, John Boyega and Ben Kingsley.
What it won’t be, though, is genuinely epic.
That’s a not-inconsiderable shortcoming, given that Adams’ tale is defined by its larger-than-life allegorical nature. As conceived by director Noam Murro and writer Tom Bidwell, this Netflix-BBC co-production of Watership Down strives for grandeur at regular turns, yet is undone by computer-generated imagery that, quite frankly, just doesn’t cut it in today’s animation field. There’s something artificial and off about the aesthetics of Murro’s effort, which uneasily balances photorealism and cartoonishness. At numerous times throughout its four 50-minute episodes (which come equipped with commercial breaks), it appears as if technicians skipped the final phase of visual processing, leaving the proceedings looking rough-around-the-edges and herky-jerky unnatural. By constantly calling attention to its own so-so construction, it habitually stymies the material’s transportive power.
Unlike the warm hand-drawn storybook style of its 1978 big-screen predecessor, this Watership Down strives for a more Pixar-ish look. While their lush natural environments are impressively crafted to impart a sense of inviting comfort or menacing terror, the rabbits don’t feel altogether connected to this world; often, while running through fields or digging in dirt, it seems like the pint-sized protagonists are operating on a slightly different spatial plane, coasting rather than walking along the ground. Their hair doesn’t quite move in tune with their bodies in realistic ways, and when they fight each other, they slap and swipe as rabbits might (given how their elbows bend), but their movements are irregular—and moreover, the camera doesn’t smoothly follow them as they engage in battle.
The fact that their eyes lack a real spark of personality, and that their uniform appearances make it difficult to visually distinguish them from one another, only further weighs down this Watership Down, which from a technical standpoint, operates in a purgatorial middle ground between the stilted crudeness of a direct-to-video Barbie movie and the professional sheen of a blockbuster like Incredibles 2. Viewing the mini-series on a TV or handheld device does mitigate some of these visual limitations. But for a parable that strives for grand import while simultaneously affording a sincere, heartfelt saga about individuals searching for life’s most basic things (food, shelter, safety, security, love and togetherness), this version’s clunky exterior goes a long way toward neutering its impact.
Watership Down cuts a couple of plot corners and alters a few of its supporting players, the latter in an attempt to correct its somewhat outdated view of females as mere domestic baby-makers. Still, it by and large sticks to Adams’ basic narrative. Thanks to the psychic vision of his brother Fiver (Hoult)—envisioned as the rabbit traversing a smudgy, frozen-object 3D space—Hazel (McAvoy) convinces a handful of fellow bunnies to flee their hollow before impending man-made disaster strikes. Out in the imposing world, they first come upon a warren populated by untrustworthy rabbits who, according to Fiver, reek of death. After narrowly escaping danger, they set up residence in an area that’s borderline idyllic. A lack of females does, however, threatens their survival in this new warren, dubbed Watership Down, thus compelling them to make contact with Efrafa, a cruel authoritarian community run like a prison by the evil General Woundwort (Kingsley).
All the elements of the archetypal hero’s quest are present in this Watership Down: the flight from home; the descent into hellish peril; the transformation of an average nobody into a brave and heroic leader; romance, loss of innocence, and attainment of salvation for a desperate people; the triumph in battle over a vicious enemy. What’s lacking, however, is the sweep and suspense of real myth. The series plods along with dutiful adherence to the particulars of its adventure, which is here embellished with a slightly more fleshed-out relationship between Hazel and one of the hutch rabbits (dubbed Clover, and voiced by Gemma Arterton) he rescues from captivity. It doesn’t shy away from the brutal violence of the animal kingdom, and it strives for nuanced characterizations whenever possible, though it never truly pulls at one’s heartstrings or raises one’s pulse.
Unsurprisingly, the core of Watership Down is its depiction of Hazel and company’s pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, and the tyrannical forces standing in their way. On two separate occasions, a rabbit excuses his villainous behavior by claiming that he was just “following orders”—instances which speak to the story’s multifaceted portrait of fascism. The series is best when trading in graver underlying themes, including the cost of freedom, the weight of the past, and humanity’s often callous disregard for the Earth and its animal inhabitants. Its confrontation of those ideas can be scattershot, but they nonetheless routinely prop up the action, which as usual climaxes with an epic showdown between Hazel and Woundwort’s factions, replete with a tragic death and an unlikely “rebirth.”
Even if no one will ever mistake this Watership Down for a classic, its cast keeps it respectable. Alongside the leads, Peter Capaldi (Kehaar), Daniel Kaluuya (Bluebell), Olivia Colman (Strawberry), Taron Egerton (El-Ahrairah), Tom Wilkinson (Threarah), Rory Kinnear (Cowslip), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Captain Vervain) and Rosamund Pike (Black Rabbit) all lend their characters a distinctive personality that the show’s animation most certainly does not. To that end, the real star of this Netflix-BBC venture is Boyega, whose Bigwig, boasting a gruff tough-guy persona that’s enhanced by demanding moral standards, captivates even when momentum flags during the middle episodes. Far more than its “Lapine” rabbit language or its big set pieces, he’s the charismatic, nuanced center of attention that leaves a lasting mark on one’s imagination.