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Friday, October 21, 2011

Because Childhood Innocence Is Overrated

I was introduced to Richard Adams's classic leporine novel Watership Down and its lauded film adaptation through slightly roundabout means. Around the age of eight or so I developed an affection for Brian Jacques's Redwall series bordering on obsession; already a fantasy fanboy in the making, I found something irresistible in a world of ancient swords and epic quests populated by talking woodland creatures with a questionably influential affinity for strawberry cordial. Needless to say I was hooked for the next half decade or so, suffering through the eventual decay of the series with virtually undying patience and going so far as to develop the then largest Redwall fansite on the web.

All the while, I had continued to glaze over the back jacket cover texts that, book after book in the series, lauded Jacques's storytelling by comparison of its achievements to those of Watership Down, an otherwise unfamiliar title to me which stuck in the back of my mind but somehow never sufficiently motivated me to track it down. Mind you, such tracking of a non-Rowlingian English-language novel was always a Herculean task in the Thailand of the 1990s, particularly when one lived as far from its civilized (read: westernized) hub in Bangkok as my family did at that time, at least given the quality (read: lack thereof) of Siamese roadways in those days. Consequently it was not until the flame of my passion for Redwall had been reduced to a dying ember in my mid teens that I chanced upon a tattered mass-market edition of the elusive work in an equally tattered missionary guest home, and my world was changed forever.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. Let us rather say my world was improved markedly. The novel, which I have not had the opportunity to read again in the last seven years or so since that happy discovery, could be considered a masterwork of the 20th century English literary canon (I refuse to employ the vile terminology of "children's" literature), assuming one were to put such stock in my over-glossed nostalgia-fueled memory of the thing. And were this review expressly about that written work, it should likely be nothing more than the slathering adulation of a worshipper and scarcely worth the name of Literary Criticism (though just try telling such a thing to an Austenian scholar, I dare you on your life). As it stands, this review is about the 1978 Martin Rosen animated film adaptation, which has both the advantage of my only just having seen it for the first time and the disadvantage of my having no fond childhood memories attached to its being - though I wonder if any child could possibly view this film without experiencing unmitigated terror, "fondness" be damned.

Vapid dust-jacket review blurbs aside, the similarities between the world of Redwall and that of Watership Down are superficial at best. Jacques's characters, particularly after the first book, are less so animals than they are people in animal costumes - the word "anthropomorphic" hardly begins to encapsulate the fact that they are bipedal, possess opposable thumbs, and not only practice in some hybrid Benedictine/Neo-Pagan religious order but fashion matching abbeys and habits to boot, to say nothing of their inordinate preoccupation with the culinary arts. Adams's rabbits, conversely, are rabbits: they hop about on all fours, their primary concerns in life are survival and reproduction, and the discovery of a boat's buoyancy in the course of a predatorial escape is their equivalent of a Copernican revolution.

It has been observed before by wiser critics than I that Watership Down fits comfortably nowhere in the canonical scheme of western literary genres; nowhere, that is, posterior to the Homeric epics. For WD is nothing short of an epic, albeit one told by rabbits, about rabbits, and for rabbits, the work itself operating under the genius conceit of being conveniently translated for its human readership, with "Lapine" names such as Hrairoo rendered as "Fiver" for our humble benefit. The scale of the story is certainly epic from that Lapine perspective, a journey of two miles consisting of near immeasurably life-threatening adventures and close escapes even when truncated from the novel for the purposes of standard "childrens'" film (that vile terminology again!) running time. The world's mythology, two, is as artistically fitting and psychologically appropriate as any of that in Homer's renditions, and therein perhaps lies the greatest strength of both the book and the film.

Watership Down, I believe, is so universally understood and adored by those familiar with it precisely because it fails to fall into any classical Aristotelian category. Neither inherently comic nor tragic, WD is a resonantly true (and ironically human) story due to its treatment of the pathos of sapient existence, which, one might thereafter watching coherently argue, holds as strongly in the case of of rabbits as it does for that of homo sapiens. For no one is the fragility of life - and, conversely, the necessity of its perpetuation - more apparent than for rabbits, the race "with a thousand enemies" ever seeking to catch and to kill. The narrative of Hazel, Fiver, and the entire Watership Warren is positively overflowing with the abundance of life in all its most extreme experiences, from the sheer terror of present and painful death to the pure elation of fulfilled dreams to the ethos of meaningful sacrifice.

But I digress. It is only fitting that I speak at least briefly of the film qua film. And indeed, what a unique film it is, damned though it be by fate and the general stupidity of Western prejudices to the annals of esoterica. The animation, directed and fully conceptualized by Rosen with the exception of the introductory mythology (which retained the style of the original and late director, John Hubley), borders on ultra-realist in such a way that resonates perfectly both with the pervading seriousness of the WD world and with an identifiably English sensibility in substance. It is, quite frankly, drab and depressing on account of that utter commitment to realism, though hauntingly and captivatingly so. Starkly beautiful in the manner of a Bruegel landscape in its depiction of reality, and vibrantly twisted like the most horrifying of Bosch's triptychs wherever it portrays hallucination or any other decay of that reality.

It's downright chilling in both instances. And it's damn good. Sure, the voice syncing is distractingly off (likely a side effect of the animation team's dedication to realism), the sprawling plot of the four-hundred-plus-page novel is truncated and compressed to such a dizzying degree that the viewer often has scant time to learn a character's name before said character is killed off haphazardly (see the novel for proper treatment on this point), and the graphic violence likely to leave young children waking up at 3am in tears should their parents be foolish enough to mistake it for "family fun," but it's meaningful in a way that few western films of the latter 20th century can claim to be, animated or otherwise. What's more, though the film's gratuitous violence and darker thematic elements were ultimately its commercial downfall, it's precisely what makes it so memorable; we just don't see this animation on this mythic scale produced outside of Japan these days, no more in 2011 than we did in 1978, with all due apologies to Brad Bird. The score, on the other hand, is nothing special, though appropriately moody, and the infamous music-video-within-the-video of Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes" is actually one of the most poignant scenes in the film, if a bit jarring given the otherwise Romantically inspired orchestration. The mise-en-scene is beyond comment: the gentle English countryside is rendered with loving exactitude, almost too palpable to seem "merely" cartoon even in the moments wherein our protagonists' unique perspective transforms it from idyllic pastoral paradise to hell upon earth. Suffice it to say that high octane nightmare fuel abounds.

In conclusion, Watership Down, the film: flawed, yes. Masterpiece, no. Classic for all the same reasons as the novel, yes, and worth every moment of your emotional investment tenfold over. You might be surprised just how much rabbits have to share with us about what it is to be mortal – what it is, after all, to be human.

Arbitrary Numerical Rating (For the film, mind you; the novel must wait for a future revisit): 7/10

1 comment :

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