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Watership Down review – CGI rabbits can’t save this Christmas turkey | Television & radio

When Richard Adams created Watership Down – published in 1972 and never out of print since – he said he wanted to write a grownup book for children, and he did. When Martin Rosen put together his 1978 animated adaptation, it was a children’s cartoon for adults. It somehow received a U certificate – presumably from a board who waved it through without watching it, convinced no film about rabbits lolloping across the countryside in search of a new home could merit anything else. The decision led to generations of traumatised children.

Now we have another animated version of the tale of Hazel and his brave band of followers leaving their doomed warren to fight foes, find does, cheat death and establish a new colony somewhere safe, this time a joint production from the BBC and Netflix. Who this one is for is not clear. On the one hand, the aesthetic is more sophisticated than Rosen’s cuddly coneys bounding about a brightly coloured landscape. A host of CGI experts were brought in to make leporine fur and movement realistic (which also, wildlife’s limits to natural variation being what they are, has the unhelpful effect of making all the rabbits virtually indistinguishable from each other). All the true drab greens and browns of the countryside and its wildlife are determinedly reproduced, and the first lightening of the gloom doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the first of the two feature-length episodes. I cannot see anyone under voting age applauding this choice. On the other, compared with Rosen’s idiosyncratic, hallucinatory masterpiece, it is far too tame and deracinated to engage adults. No rabbits struggling over the dead bodies of their gassed comrades as the developers tear up the burrow. No truly terrifying visions from Fiver. We do not see Hazel’s rabbits marked in Efrafa. And the new General Woundwort looks like Flopsy Bunny compared with the real one. Yes, I said real. Come at me.

I presume this flattening was necessary to make it marketable, but – especially for those who have seen the first film – it made for deeply unsatisfying viewing. That is despite a cast as full of talent as – and notably more diverse than – Rosen’s was, including James McAvoy as Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as Fiver, John Boyega as Bigwig and Rosamund Pike, completely and unfathomably captivating as the Black Rabbit of Inlé.

The sense of missed opportunity only grew as so many familiar scenes played out in such similar but lesser ways. There was the crossing of the road without the visual joke of Bigwig sitting just on the right side of the central line to avoid being run over while he spouts nonsense about cars. There was the farmhouse cat attack without anything like the original setup that paid off with Lynn Farleigh’s feline pinning down our hero and purring: “Can you run? I think not.” Most wastefully of all, Peter Capaldi as Kehaar was cut down to a few fleeting scenes instead of being given his head as Zero Mostel was in 1978 and providing some much needed light relief in the rabbits’ dark lives.

There is no tension or dread – when I felt any, it came mostly from the memory of the first cartoon overlaying the present. The part of my soul that started screaming when Bigwig’s ensnarement revealed the truth of Cowslip’s warren woke from what turns out to have been the lightest of slumbers as soon as the new one popped up, but I doubt the latest rendering was enough to move anyone not primed by such early trauma.

Above all, perhaps, there was no change in emphasis from the film or reinterpretation of the book for a new age. The lessons remain the same (basically, four legs good, two legs bad and if the four can be backed by a rational Hazelish mind and not the brute force of a Bigwig, even better) and just as relevant, so the classic still stands. What, really, was the point in messing with it? But maybe it will send people back to the book, or prompt a new set of parents to think, “It can’t be as bad as I remember,” set their children in front of the first film and freeze as two generations of faces fill with horror as blood stains the fields, muzzles foam and Woundwort tears the ears of the innocent. Family viewing, 70s-style. Enjoy.


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