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REVIEW: Netflix's Watership Down Loses Most of the Classic Novel's Magic

The 1978 animated feature film adaptation of Richard Adams’ beloved, best-selling 1972 novel Watership Down is notorious for traumatizing generations of kids with its startlingly graphic depictions of rabbit death. It’s also a lyrical and often beautiful take on Adams’ adventure story, about a group of rabbits on a journey to a new home. The new four-part adaptation from Netflix and the BBC (premiering December 23 on Netflix in the U.S.) doesn’t have the same kind of distinctive artistic vision as Martin Rosen’s independently produced film, although it’s mostly faithful in its adaptation of Adams’ novel.

The new version’s biggest shortcoming is its visual approach. As opposed to the evocative, watercolor-style look of the hand-drawn animation in Rosen’s film, the miniseries is created via realistic-looking CGI, giving it a cold, antiseptic feel that contrasts with the warm, inviting voice performances. The creators also just don’t have the resources needed to deliver the kind of detail and clarity they’re going for, and instead of immersing the audience in a convincing natural world, they end up with a distancing effect that makes it difficult to engage with the story. The animation looks more like a mid-level video-game cut scene than a beautifully rendered movie.

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There also isn’t much creativity in the visual presentation, which is composed primarily of dull grays and browns. That makes it especially difficult to tell the many, many rabbit characters apart, especially in large group scenes (or the intense battles that make up a significant portion of the narrative). And becoming invested in the lives of these rabbits is the key to appreciating the story, which adapts the template of a high fantasy quest to the everyday animal world, giving typical rabbit behavior the grandiose air of a rich, complex mythology.

The central characters are brothers Hazel (voiced by James McAvoy) and Fiver (Nicholas Hoult), who set out from their warren in the English countryside to establish a new home away from the threat of encroaching human development. The small, timid Fiver experiences terrifying visions of the future, including a premonition of the warren being destroyed by construction equipment, but only a handful of other rabbits believe in him, joining him and Hazel on their long trip. Just traveling through the wilderness puts the rabbits in grave danger, from predators like foxes and owls, human farmers with shotguns, and even from other rabbits who would restrict their newfound freedom.

Even when Hazel’s group of bucks (male rabbits) makes it to the promised land, their new civilization is doomed without does (female rabbits) to join them. So they must make daring expeditions to a nearby farm where rabbits are kept in hutches, and to the prison-like warren known as Efrafa, where the fearsome General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley) rules with cruelty and intimidation. Director Noam Murro previously made action sequel 300: Rise of an Empire, and he’s able to generate some solid suspense as the rabbits fight for their lives, often against overwhelming odds.

Those scenes still suffer from the murky visuals and the difficulty in telling the characters apart, though, and the increased running time (the four 50-minute episodes amount to more than twice the length of Rosen’s film) dilutes some of the suspense as well. Perhaps because the animation is less stylized, Murro holds back on the graphic violence, often cutting away at the moments when Rosen produced his most haunting images. That makes this version of the story a bit less disturbing, although it’s still melancholy and often morbid, and has a good chance of giving nightmares to any children who stumble across it.

Whatever emotional impact the miniseries has is largely thanks to the stellar voice cast full of accomplished British thespians, including John Boyega, Olivia Colman, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Kaluuya, Peter Capaldi, Rosamund Pike and many more. McAvoy brings real anguish and compassion to his portrayal of Hazel, and Kingsley is appropriately menacing as the main villain. Murro and writer Tom Bidwell flesh out some of the female roles as well, countering the somewhat outdated, chauvinistic tone of Adams’ novel. There are times when the show works effectively as an audio drama, with the stiff visuals (the rabbits’ faces are mostly inexpressive, and their mouths move awkwardly) almost irrelevant to the tense or tender interactions between characters.

At other times, the voice performances are more of a jumble, unable to rise above the drab onscreen mish-mash of similar-looking rabbits. There’s an unfortunate disconnect between the mostly measured, stately performances and the generic, off-brand look of the characters. Aside from an opening sequence in the first episode, which uses lovely shadow puppet-style figures to recount the rabbits’ creation myth, the show fails to bring Adams’ vivid world to life. Instead of expanding and enlivening Adams’ epic story, the creators make it into something mundane and often grueling.

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